NFL: Then and Now (How Money Has Changed the Game)
2012 Jun 4
We all remember the stories our fathers told us. Stories about the game, as it was played then, explained as they recounted some of their favorite moments in this or that team's history. For me, it was the epic saga of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers. That Steel Curtain defense, made up of guys like Jack Lambert and Joe Greene. I'd hear Dad tell, in short spartan sentences, how the former's toothlessness was directly proportional to his skill, and how the latter's ferocity on the field resulted in the word "Mean" being irrevocably attached to his name. I'd hear the grudging admiration in the old man's voice, as he expounded upon the character of men like Rocky Bleier, who, after having been maimed in Vietnam, clawed his way through the pain and uncertainty of physical rehabilitation to retake his spot on the team. This seemingly impossible feat, Dad awkwardly explained, was a testament to the strength of the human spirit.
I remember the touch of awe in my father's voice, as he described the acrobatic catches of Lynn Swann, arms gesticulating grandly in reverence. And I fondly recall my frank disbelief as Dad spun the epic tale of the Immaculate Reception, and of how the crippling depression turned frantic jubilation — in the moments before and after — caused him to leap off of the couch and begin pounding the television set, all the while screaming at Franco Harris to "RUN, YOU SON OF A BITCH, RUUUNNN!!!" Apparently, this sudden outburst terrified my mother so much that she locked herself in the bathroom. It took him an hour to talk her out (Mom later corroborated the story).
Perhaps most important of all, I remember the respectful tone that my father used while describing that old Steelers patriarch, Art Rooney Sr. — a devout Catholic with legendary integrity, a savvy business sense, and (if surviving photographs are any indication) an unhealthy penchant for cigars. "The Chief," as Dad explained it, had founded the Steelers (then called "The Pirates") in 1933, and the franchise has belonged to his family ever since, with presidential control passing first to his son Dan (1975), and most recently to his grandson Art Rooney II (2002).
I imagine that boys my age who were growing up in Wisconsin were weened on stories of men like Bart Starr and Vince Lombardi. In Minnesota, fathers undoubtedly regaled their sons with the exploits of Fran Tarkenton's offense, or the Purple People Eaters defense. On the West Coast, an entire generation of tykes must have been taught to idolize John Madden's championship Raiders. On the East Coast, legions of boys were surely dazzled by the tale of "Broadway" Joe Namath, and the Jets' legendary victory over Baltimore in Superbowl III. I suspect that others, too, were conditioned from an early age to be lifelong Browns fans. These future "Dawg Pounders" would be sustained by the memory of legends like Paul Brown and Jim Brown (no relation), through the heartbreak of Art Modell's betrayal, and the subsequent struggle of a gutted team trying to stay relevant in a brutal league.
Whether you bleed black and gold, wear an over-sized wedge of cheese on your head, strip to your skivvies and paint yourself purple in sub-zero temperatures, or have an Ernie Davis memorial tattoo on your right arm, chances are you first caught the bug — like I did — by listening to your old man's stories of how the game was played then. The gory glory days of old, where blood flowed and bones were broken and barbaric YAWPS were sounded over the press boxes of the world. When men were defined by the amount of pain they could play through (not to mention the amount that they could inflict on others). When the word football was synonymous with words like heart, courage, and honor. When mothers were afraid to sign permission slips, which then had to be forged by kids with stars in their eyes — visions of cleats and jerseys, gridirons and grit filling their heads. When talent came second to character. When dreams were realized through blood, sweat, and tears.
But that was then.
We've all noticed the change, gradual though it may have been. Perhaps it started with the birth of free agency in 1993, when the NFL owners and the newly re-formed Player's Association, exhausted after years of litigation, finally reached an agreement in which players were essentially afforded a bigger piece of the pie. Maybe the shift began earlier still, with the player strikes of 1982 and 1987, which paved the way for that 1993 compromise. Looking back even further, an argument could be made for 1970 and the establishment of a league salary minimum ($9,000 per year for rookies, at that time), as the origin of the collective idea that money ought to take precedence over love of the game.
In fact, prior to 1970, many players still had day jobs at the factory, the steel mill, or the grocery store. Playing in the NFL wasn't about contract bonuses and endorsement deals — it was about football. It was about a break from the humdrum of daily life where men could garb themselves in the ritual dress of their tribe (re: team), and foster camaraderie with their brothers in arms while exercising their primal need to make war on other tribes; to dominate and subdue through violence, and to establish who was right through might. Few of these men harbored delusions of becoming rich through football. And isn't that really the point?
The seeds may have been planted as far back as the 1920s, with isolated incidents like in 1926, when Red Grange signed a contract with the Chicago Bears for $100,000. But whether the dam broke in 1970 or 1993 — or any of the years between, before, or after — one thing's for certain: At some point a high percentage of players started caring more about paychecks than playtime.
There have been rumblings for decades, but like dutiful fans we've stuck it out through the lucrative contract negotiations, which in turn gave birth to the inflated egos (add in a complimentary sense of entitlement). Shortly thereafter came the nauseating rise of diva-esque football players in our beloved sport. The soap opera careers of such players, that seems invariably to follow the same predestined path — beginning with a rise in popularity, followed by well publicized tantrums, which prelude a fall from grace, culminating with a reality t.v. spot and subsequent comeback, etc., etc. — has kept us in a state of morbid fascination for years.
This isn't your father's Oldsmobile!
Alas, our noble sport has been commandeered by a bunch of spoiled rich kids! Are the days of toughness, self-sacrifice, loyalty, and integrity gone for good? Is it impossible to separate the financial success of the NFL from the rampant moral decay that is eating it from within? Is it so for the NFL, as is true for nations, fated to be born, to have a prime, and then to die? Say it ain't!
A Glimmer of Hope
And yet, all hope may not be lost. Amid the groan inducing soap opera of the Terrell Owens saga, the nauseating antics of Michael Vick, and the perplexing disregard for firearms safety protocol from Plaxico Burress, there are equally inspiring tales to shine a beacon of light through the storm. There are those like Kurt Warner, whose story of perseverance, redemption, and triumph rival the great Homeric poems. There's Teddy Bruschi, who literally played until his heart gave out, then got a tune up and played some more. And don't forget the incomparable Hines Ward, made great not by his speed or size, but by his steel will and iron work ethic, throughout his amazing fourteen year career.
Only time will tell, but perhaps this culture of self-serving avarice, this "I" in "team" mentality, will go the way of bell bottoms or the WFL. Maybe guys with the mentality of Jerome Bettis will rally in the days to come, so that guys like Chris Johnson are remembered the way you or I remember a particularly bad bout with the flu.
But however it plays out, for good or for ill, I expect I'll be right where I've always been: Riding in the front car of this crazy steel train as it chugs steadily along the tracks of destiny. My father would have expected no less.
Is the commercial success of the NFL good or bad for the game of football?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Earl Noah Bernsby