I do not love any sport more than I love football. But lately, I'm having trouble justifying my passion for a sport in which I no longer have any faith or trust over those in it doing "the right thing."
This isn't a soapbox speech about integrity, fairness or even Right vs. Wrong. Instead, it's more a self-examination of the answer to the question "why?" than anything else. Why do we fanatically follow a sport that seems to value win-at-all-costs over everything else? Isn't there more to life and football than just being the best?
In reality, the answer to that question for many is "no." For someone like me, who grew up in a part of the country (Texas) where only two sports really existed in my younger days - football and spring football - football runs parallel with everyday living. The Game of Football presents a unique set of challenges every time you watch, or play. Sometimes those challenges are solved, sometimes they aren't. But it's the attempt at solving those tests of skill and intellect under physical duress that helps us all learn in the long run. Football can genuinely mean more than just being a vehicle to entertain the masses, but for me and so many others, so does doing the right thing along the way mean just as much. Why does it seem we continue to genuflect toward this sport that drives our common sense of decency batty?
I could borrow my favorite, all-time Bill Belichickian phrase here and go with "it is what it is." But that would be too easy. Rather, "it is what it always has been." Football is familiar. Football is challenging. Football gets the competitive juices flowing. Football creates passion and emotion. Football brings out the best, and the worst, in many of us. I suppose there are few things in life that can do all of that from something as simple as the mere mention of an oblong-shaped sphere.
Borrowing a line from one of my favorite sports movies A League of their Own, football is hard...and "it's the hard, that makes it great." You'll excuse the cross-referencing of baseball in this instance, of course. If it were easy, everyone would do it.
The familiarity with football and its unique place on our societal pedestal is what keeps bringing me back, I suppose. Traditions were long ago established within family and/or friendly circles; allegiances created, victories celebrated and defeats mourned. And it was all done together. There's a commonality in football that seems to exist on a higher level than other sports, if only perhaps because there's a rise in testosterone levels when you watch, hear or experience that first pop of the pads. Even if you're not playing, you can feel the same emotions as the athletes themselves, with your own self-esteem rising and falling with every hit, every big play, every victory and every defeat.
It's the way the game appears to be played - with pride, respect and with integrity - that should be embraced. But these last few weeks have given us all a glimpse under the rug, where the dirty part of the Game is often swept. I have a hard time giving football a big hug when so much deceit becomes part of the Game itself. The latest examples, of course, come from the NFL's handling of "DeflateGate."
Sure, the Patriots are a major player here, and the argument can be made if it hadn't been for an apparent need to gain an unnecessary edge, to do whatever it takes in the course of competition in order to ensure victory - we might not be where we are with this soap opera story right now.
But the NFL has been less than genuine in its response to any alleged malfeasance. The Wells Report is such an agenda-driven waste of tree pulp that it appears the league is only interested in covering up its own recent transgressions and mistakes (in the Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson cases, for starters) by focusing on issues concerning the Integrity of the Game. What integrity? Pay no attention to our own mistakes - let's instead skewer a flagship, championship franchise (and a marquee QB) that for all intents and purposes has operated within rules (written and especially unwritten) the league created, nurtured and fostered for decades in the first place?
That's pure, unadulterated mule muffins. There's no integrity there. Do as we say - not as we do? Hard for me as a somewhat right-minded football fan to embrace that philosophy. Yes, the Patriots need to do the right thing as we go forward from the past few weeks of dusting from under the rug, and I believe they will. They have to. But the sport of pro football also needs to look at itself in the mirror, and decide where it goes from here. The NFL has more problems at hand than just an issue over underinflated balls. Decide what you will be - a sport that fosters a healthy, competitive, familial fire within us all, or a sport that begins to wither on a vine of deceit, distrust and dishonesty.
Do the right thing, NFL. Don't forget to clean up your own mess. Help us all justify our passion again.
Madden Fame, or Madden Curse?
Not for nuthin', but I'm not exactly disappointed in Rob Gronkowski's Madden 2016 cover defeat at the hands (sticky or not) of New York Giants' wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr.
For the uninitiated - and I really can't imagine there's too many who don't know the story - the Madden Curse has been one of the great off-field, off-season storylines in the NFL since the video game entered the marketplace with a current player on its' cover in 1999. The game itself began its fanatical following in 1988, with former Oakland head coach John Madden himself gracing the game-front in the first 11 years. From Garrison Hearst in '99 to Richard Sherman last year, 16 different players have claimed a slice of digital fame (and perhaps fortune) by appearing on the cover. It has been an honor for pro football players to be featured in this manner, aligned with one of the great Hall-of-Fame coaches of all time, and one of the game's beloved television broadcasters.
The way it has worked out, however, has been more akin to appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated, long known for "jinxing" the fortunes of those who have appeared on the magazine's front. Hearst, for example, broke his ankle and missed two seasons of playing time following his cover appearance. Even the HOF-great Barry Sanders made the cover - and then retired before training camp got started in 2000. Notably, former San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson declined an opportunity to appear on the cover in 2007, giving way to Seattle's Shaun Alexander that year.
Alexander was the reigning NFL MVP. He suffered a foot injury, missed six starts that season, and never returned to form. Literally every player who has appeared on the Madden cover experienced a decline in his fortunes soon thereafter - with the possible exception of Sherman. Sherman did injure his elbow in the NFC title game and lost the Super Bowl last season though, did he not? And considered something as drastic as Tommy John surgery for that injured elbow? Just sayin'.
There's a part of me that wishes players would actually DO something first to earn an honor like this one. While Beckham has crazy athleticism, had an extraordinary finish to 2014 and one of the great individual catches of all time - what has he won? The ultimate prize for 2014, the Vince Lombardi Trophy, belongs to Gronk and his teammates.
The fame of the Madden Cover can wait. Victory for Gronk, and the Patriots, comes in his defeat.
It'll be business as usual, soon enough
ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss noted this week that Tom Brady, through all of the current controversy he and the organization continue to weather, has not missed any voluntary workouts since the Patriots' off-season program officially began on April 20th. Not one.
While we know this hasn't necessarily been the case in his past, it is worth noting that there appears to be some focus and intent to his plans for the upcoming season. It's also likely working out in Foxboro where he can be shielded somewhat from further notoriety or paparazzo is a factor, too. Nonetheless, the business of playing football has already started in earnest - whether he's eligible to start the season or not.
That business of playing football also brought about another head-scratching moment this week with the release of recently signed cornerback Chimdi Chekwa, who came to New England from Oakland in March. The Patriots released CB Kyle Arrington last week and CB Alfonzo Dennard the week before. Each of these moves came after the team lost CB's Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to free agency.
Perhaps Chekwa's release is a sign the organization likes what they already have in the defensive backfield? Maybe there are still other moves to be made? Whatever the case, players begin earning their stripes - or their spots - next week with the onset of Organized Team Activities. You know...actual on-the-field practices?
Finally. The new season appears to be peeking just around the corner, and not a moment-too-soon.
*John Rooke is an author and award-winning broadcaster, and has been the Patriots' stadium voice for 22 years. Currently serving in several media capacities - which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" on Patriots.com Radio - Rooke has broadcast college football and basketball for the past 26 years and is a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame. *
Follow him on Twitter - @JRbroadcaster