Saturday, November 14, 2009

When bottom lines clash with yard lines

OK, so the NFL fined Chad Ochocinco $20,000 for jokingly offering an official $1 to overturn a decision. It was an obvious joke by a guy so committed to keeping it light-hearted that he legally changed his last name to his uniform number. If the NFL.com message board is any indicator, the joke went over well among most fans, even those who weren't necessarily riveted by his past pranks.

On the other hand, Tommie Harris punches Deuce Lutui in the face and is fined $7,500.

I love football and the NFL, but these fines prove more than anything where Roger Goodell and the rest of the league management have placed their priorities.

Since becoming commissioner, Goodell has had a reputation as a fine-happy disciplinarian. He has largely been praised for this, although not by me. When Pacman Jones, Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress and seemingly the entire Cincinnati Bengals team were making waves on the crime scene, Goodell was all too eager to punish them. Fair enough. You don't want to look soft on players who violate the law; you want to make an example of them.

Then the league began restricting its access to fans. YouTube fan videos? Forget about it! Monday Night Football? Moved to ESPN! Want to see pretty much any NFL footage ever? Join the NFL Network! (At least there's lots of free access to recent clips on NFL.com. I'll give them that.) Protecting the product, I guess. I hate how this attitude has swept America, but I at least can see it from their perspective.

Then came the tougher quarterback-protection rule, know rightfully so as the Tom Brady Rule. It gives the officials immense latitude in calling a roughing-the-passer penalty. They say it's to protect the quarterback. But everybody knows it came in the wake of Tom Brady's season-ending injury last year, which sidelined one of the NFL's hottest players. The league doesn't want to lose one of its most popular properties again, because that could cause a decline in revenue. (At the very least, the league should enforce this penalty consistently, such as when the Falcons made illegal helmet-to-helmet contact on Drew Brees, causing him to fumble and the Falcons to recover for a touchdown. I guess Drew Brees has yet to fully resonate with the key viewership demographics.)

This past week's twin fines show just how out-of-hand this has become. And while I'm hardly privy to the insights of NFL officials and owners, I can only assume that the levied fines originate from the same mentality held by those on the fan forums who hate Chad Ochocinco:

In order to be a good football player, one must also be a solemn, serious individual, outspoken and distinguished only insofar as such traits don't disrupt the increasingly stiff standards imposed by the league. It's a variation of the old notion that "you think you have to be a prick to get things done," to paraphrase Robin Williams as Patch Adams.

I've always had a problem with this notion of sportsmanship. As I've said here before, being anonymous and emotionless is not the opposite of being Terrell Owens. Say what you want about the antics of T.O. and others like him - they keep the fans entertained and abuzz for years, even (and sometimes especially) if they hate him for it. These kinds of things should be dealt with on the field or in the locker room, not in some corporate boardroom.

This goes double for someone like Ochocinco, who ranks among the most good-natured and well-liked players in the league. He's not vicious like T.O. was; he's looking for a laugh that even his opponents can appreciate. I've known hundreds of athletes in my life - scholastic, college and pro alike - and there's always someone who is upbeat and jokey, on or off the field. Ochocinco strikes me as that kind of guy. It's almost like he can't help it. Nobody's getting hurt (unlike Harris' punch), the fans dig it and - perhaps most of all - Chad's one of the league's best receivers. He backs up his antics, if indeed his antics were the kind that needed backing up.

In short, he's the very kind of crowd-pleaser that the NFL is so afraid will alienate fans, they just might alienate them anyway with their twisted logic.

At this rate, I'm surprised they even let players wear names and numbers anymore. But then again, I guess numbers are what it's all about.

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