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RODGERS, WILSON AND BRADY ASIDE, ASK THIS: HOW DIRTY IS THE NFL?
As long as fans obsess over quarterbacking dramas, the league will tip-toe past its owners’ sins and other scandals, a list that includes a veteran wide receiver who gambled on his team’s games
Now that Aaron Rodgers has stopped toying with America’s feelings, and Denver has relinquished everything but its mountains and weed dispensaries for Russell Wilson, Tom Brady becomes the next great offseason mind tease. Nearing dad-jeans territory at age 45, he already is dangling his carrots and avocados to drive buzz about his future.
The NFL doesn’t have down time, if you haven’t noticed. It not only lives in our heads rent-free but surely is plotting to charge whopping fees for the privilege. No league, no entertainment enterprise, ever has maintained such an unshakeable grip on this country’s consciousness.
But the expected news that Rodgers and his God complex will remain with the Packers after years of rancor — potentially at $200 million for four seasons, extending his Green Bay career into his 40s — isn’t what football aficionados should prioritize this week. The same applies to the unexpected news that Wilson is taking his battered bones to the Broncos — who soon might be owned by Jeff Bezos and/or Jay-Z and fronted by Peyton Manning, who would leave Monday nights to Eli and the other brother. Training camps don’t open for 4 1/2 months, people. Let the Broncos play a game or two before deciding if they gave up too much for a 33-year-old quarterback: a seemingly insane package including two first-round picks, two second-round picks and three serviceable veterans, one of whom is bust-trending Drew Lock. Let A-Rod’s “beautiful mystery’’ play out at Lambeau Field in the fall. Let Brady maneuver his way to his native Bay Area while Gisele ponders a divorce settlement. As Rodgers himself would say, R-E-L-A-X.
Rather, think bigger: How dirty and unscrupulous is this league, anyway?
The sewage eruptions are relentless. And it’s unconscionable that Roger Goodell continues to slow-play the scandals engulfing the owners he serves as commissioner, the men who’ve paid him $128 million the past two fiscal years. Why do we hear so little about the dirty men in his filthy-rich domain — Daniel Snyder and sexual harassment allegations in Washington, Jerry Jones’ awkward defense of a public-relations executive/confidante accused of peeping-tomming and taking photos of the Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleaders as they dressed? We’re supposed to believe Jon Gruden wrote the only toxic messages in a trove of 650,000 emails that remain concealed?
The league continues to be a racist disgrace, yet Goodell is in drag-and-hide mode after Brian Flores’ revelations, including an accusation that owner Stephen Ross offered him $100,000 every time the Miami Dolphins tanked a game. Any wrongdoing connected to one of the 32 people truly in charge of this massive alliance, which recently commanded $113 billion in new media riches, becomes part of an orchestrated effort to diminish the stench and make sure millions of fans are focused on benign, pre-spring story lines.
You know: Will the Packers finally win a Super Bowl for Rodgers after he politicked and connived to win a power struggle over management? Chewed up and spit out in Seattle, how much does Wilson have left for the Broncos? Are the Seahawks, who’d better draft very well to remain relevant, serious about Lock as the replacement? Why did Brady bother with a retirement announcement when he started missing football the second he pushed the “send” button? Whither Jimmy Garoppolo? Without a serious successor for Ben Roethlisberger, should Mike Tomlin find a new coaching destination? Or will he ignore the “small hands” of Kenny Pickett, just up the hill at Pitt, 39 drafts after the Steelers passed on Dan Marino?
This is the latest example of the NFL insulting our intelligence. Notice how quickly Goodell moved to convict and underline the undeniable horrors of Calvin Ridley. The veteran wide receiver, a former first-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons, became the first active player — and definitely not the last — to incur a ban for betting on NFL games amid the league’s fraught, sleazy marriage with legal gambling interests. Once the owners flip-flopped on a decades-old opposition to casino relationships — sacrificing their collective conscience for the megabillions jackpot grab — they couldn’t hide their buck-naked hypocrisy once an employee violated policy.
So, while duct-tape-gagging any and all noise about the unresolved ills of the owners, Goodell grabbed the closest bullhorn and called out Ridley as the scum of all scum. Never mind that Ross is accused of an even more egregious integrity breach. It’s more convenient and less messy to make a glaring example of a productive player as a deterrent to others in uniform — Ridley is suspended indefinitely at least through next season and loses his entire 2022 salary of $11.1 million.
“There is nothing more fundamental to the NFL’s success — and to the reputation of everyone associated with our league — than upholding the integrity of the game,” Goodell wrote to Ridley, in a letter made public. “This is the responsibility of every player, coach, owner, game official, and anyone else employed in the league. Your actions put the integrity of the game at risk, threatened to damage public confidence in professional football, and potentially undermined the reputations of your fellow players.
“For decades, gambling on NFL games has been considered among the most significant violations of league policy warranting the most substantial sanction. In your case, I acknowledge and commend you for your promptly reporting for an interview, and for admitting your actions.”
The hammer was necessary, of course, as the NFL can’t cram its coffers with sportsbook money and not immediately ban a player who has access to inside information. In a sense, it provides evidence that the league’s security oversight system can be effective, at least in this case, via monitoring by a league surveillance partner, Genius Sports. Ridley’s parlay bets were made on a Hard Rock Sportsbook app in Florida — yes, Ross’ Dolphins play in Hard Rock Stadium — and he bet on the Falcons to win on some tickets. It doesn’t require much imagination to project how an NFL player, coach, front-office executive, support-staff member or trainer could use internal intelligence to wager. Ridley was battling mental health issues at the time, last November, and he quickly addressed the suspension on Twitter. I’m not sure if he’s remorseful or preparing to make another bet.
“I know I was wrong But I’m getting 1 year lol,’’ he wrote, adding, “If you know me you know my character.”
In other tweets, Ridley wrote: “I bet 1500 total I don’t have a gambling problem. … I couldn’t even watch football at that point. Just gone be more healthy when I come back.”
The NFL would be a better, less corrupt and more believable place if Goodell were half as proactive about scandals involving owners. But while they’ll never say it aloud, they know America is hopelessly hooked on their product. Only hours after Ridley’s suspension, it was lost in the free-agency-is-coming news cycle, replaced by Rodgers, who, true to form, refused to confirm that contractual terms were settled. He’s waiting to see if his favorite receiver, Davante Adams, will sign a long-term deal in Green Bay after receiving the franchise tag. Or, he’s still playing with us in his never-ending prank.
"Hey everyone, just wanted to clear some things up; YES I will be playing with the @packers next year, however, reports about me signing a contract are inaccurate, as are the supposed terms of the contract I "signed,” tweeted Rodgers, who isn’t as adept at punctuation as he is threading a spiral. “I’m very excited to be back #year18.’’
You figure the owners could go on an ax-murdering rampage, one after another, and America still would care more about tracking Wilson’s moving vans to Colorado. So, it’s on the fans to start holding truth to power, as the commissioner chuckles to himself. He knows 167 million unique visitors watched Super Bowl LVI and more than 208 million watched at least one minute on some platform. The U.S. population is 332 million, including babies who think a football is a chew toy.
The league’s audience is captive. While Calvin Ridley hangs, Dan Snyder and Jerry Jones and Steve Ross are enjoying their yachts and islands. If one of them feels like embezzling more billions, have at it, because America will be preoccupied by Tom Brady’s next Instagram post.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.