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01.05.11

The NFL's Brett Favre Disaster

The Favre sexual-harassment mess exposes the NFL’s ugly history of running interference for good ol’ boy misbehavior. From Favre to Ben Roethlisberger, the league is lawless.

“Ohio Woman,” read a joke headline from eTruesports.com this week, “Claims Not to Have Been Sexted by Brett Favre.”

The way the Brett Favre revelations are coming out, it may not be so funny by the time you read this. On Monday, ABC News broke the story that two professional massage therapists, Christina Scavo and Shannon O’Toole, had filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment against Favre, the New York Jets, and Lisa Ripi, who hires therapists for the team. The women say in the suit that Favre texted advances to them, including suggesting a threesome with a third therapist, and when they refused, they were given no further work by the Jets. This only three months after allegations by former Jets sideline reporter Jenn Sterger that Favre texted her propositions, mash notes, and even photos of his penis when he was with the New York Jets in 2008.

Far be it for us to offer legal advice to Scavo and O’Toole, but it might have been well advised for them to have included one more defendant in their legal action: the National Football League.

When evidence of his sexual escapades went public, Tiger Woods was vilified unceremoniously, and dumped by several of his sponsors. Favre, in contrast, is still the proud spokesman for Wrangler Jeans, a fact that was scathingly mocked by Jason Sudeikis on Saturday Night Live (“For me, nothing works better than the all new open-fly jeans from Wrangler”) and questioned yesterday by Brad Adgate of Horizon Media, an ad buying agency, who tweeted, “How much longer will Wrangler Jeans stick with Brett Favre?”

In a staggeringly irresponsible statement to The Huffington Post on December 30, Laura Ries, president of Ries and Ries, a marketing/consulting firm, excused Favre for the Sterger incident because, “It was a minor infraction, a text message. This is in no way on the scale of Tiger Woods.”

It certainly isn’t. The women involved with Tiger were consenting. (In the ABC News report, Scavo said that Favre treated her like “a hanging slab of meat,” an allegation unmatched by any Tiger’s mistresses.) Favre is alleged to have sexually harassed at least three women and may by indirectly responsible for Scavo and O’Toole being blackballed by the Jets.

One thing’s for sure—a big difference between Tiger Woods and Brett Favre is that Tiger doesn’t play in the National Football League.

The NFL has no intention of killing its cash cows while they can still be milked.

The NFL has a long and loyal history of running interference for good ol’ boy misbehavior. For refusing to cooperate with the Sterger sex-texting investigation—which included allegations that he texted Sterger photos of his penis—Favre was fined a mere $50,000 by the NFL. To put this in perspective, his salary for 2010 was $16 million; broken down by the minute, he made enough to pay the fine in about one series of downs. After announcing Favre’s “punishment,” Commissioner Roger Goodell stated that the matter was “at an end.”

There was no serious talk of Favre being suspended for the final game of the season, though, as it turned out, he didn’t play due to injury. And because this was expected to be Favre’s final year, the league was anticipating a windfall in terms of ratings for his farewell game. (The NFL has no intention of killing its cash cows while they can still be milked.)

Nor does it have any intention of slapping any wrists on the management side. In a display of behavior at least as thuggish anything seen on the field this year, the Jets’ strength and conditioning coach, Sal Alosi, tripped Miami Dolphins Nolan Carroll during a game, an action that could have resulted in serious injury for Carroll. Despite the outrage from fans and media, Alosi’s only reprimand so far has been an indefinite suspension by the Jets and a $100,000 fine handed down by the NFL. (The Jets apparently feel they should wait until the season is over to decide whether Alosi should be fired.) Although Alosi’s action was caught on camera and seen by millions, this was just fine with the NFL, who allowed the Jets to keep Alosi’s job status in-house.

So was the involvement of former Denver Broncos Head Coach Josh McDaniels when an assistant secretly videotaped a San Francisco 49ers practice before the two teams played in London on October 21. McDaniels was fined $50,000 for “not reporting the incident promptly” to the league office. He was subsequently fired by the team owner, not for shoddy ethics but for the only real crime in the NFL—losing. (In McDaniels’ case, losing 17 of his last 22 games.).

McDaniels, you may recall, was working for Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots in 2008 when the team was revealed to have taped a New York Jets practice. Although Belichick was fined $500,000, there are those who are incensed that he was never made to disclose all he knew about the incident that the sports press came to refer to as “Spygate.” After the fine, Commissioner Goodell announced that he was “satisfied” and made it clear “the matter was at a close.” (The fine was the monetary equivalent of a 10-yard penalty for a coach who Forbes identified last year as the highest paid coach in the NFL.)

All this pales, of course, to the case of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback “Big Ben” Roethlisberger. In March 2010, police in Milledgeville, Georgia, confirmed that they were investigating allegations that Roethlisberger had assaulted a young woman in the bathroom of a local nightclub. The 20-year-old woman decided not to press criminal charges because the publicity would be “too intrusive,” but she stressed in her letter to the D.A. that she was not withdrawing her accusations. (By the way, the incident marked the second time Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault in three years.)

The NFL’s response? Even though the league office noted that he had not been found guilty of the charges, Roethlisberger was suspended for the first six games of the 2010 season for violating the NFL’s maddeningly vague “personal conduct policy.” Goodell himself later reduced the suspension to four games "contingent on Roethlisberger continuing to adhere to the program established by our advisers and avoiding any further violations of the Personal Conduct Policy." Translated from NFL-ease to English, this must mean no charges of sexual assault in the past few months.

In retrospect, Brett Favre may have lucked out—he didn’t even get a suspension, which probably would have generated enough bad publicity for Wrangler and Snapper lawnmowers, and other sponsors to terminate him as their spokesperson. But then again, when it comes to pro football stars, no one from the NFL to corporate sponsors seems to have any personal conduct policies.

So what is Brett Favre’s punishment? Thanks to the NFL, he got away relatively scot-free, his final week in pro football—presuming he has the brains to stay retired this time—spent at press conferences being fawned over by the predominantly white male sports press corps.

And when the negative PR blows over—you’ll pardon the expression—in a year or two don’t be surprised to see him in an NFL broadcasting booth. That is, unless someone in the New York State judicial system is more interested than anyone in the NFL in exposing, you’ll pardon the expression, Favre as the possible criminal he may be.

Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and The Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.