Foul Players

Image is Everything…Unless We’re Talking About the NFL

From DUI’s to domestic abuse and disorderly conduct, no matter how out of bounds football players go off the field, fans are still game to place bets for them winning big on it.

Andy Lyons/Getty,Andy Lyons

Whenever a notable NFL player gets into trouble off the field, the following media debate topic is as inevitable as an extra point:

Is the NFLs image problem putting the sport in jeopardy?

In fact, it’s being broached again this week after the Baltimore Ravens’ star running back Ray Rice was caught on video dragging his unconscious fiancée (Janay Palmer) out of an elevator at an Atlantic City casino. Turns out—according to police—Rice and Palmer were trading blows with each other, with the former (5’8, 212 pounds) not surprisingly winning the fight. The Rice story comes on the heels of the Darren Sharper case, in which the former safety and NFL Network analyst pleaded not guilty in a Los Angeles court this week in the alleged drugging and rape of two women.

Ho-hum...It’s just another week in the NFL, which apparently provides so much police blotter material that TMZ now has a sports division (no,’s called TMZ Sports, and it was the first to get the Rice elevator video).

All of this news comes as former Pats tight end Aaron Hernandez is awaiting trial for murder. And, as if on cue, as I wrote this, news of Redskins’ tight end Fred Davis being arrested for DUI came across the wire. Crime is seemingly rampant, and according to data compiled by USA Today in September, Commissioner Roger Goodell—who has been on the job for seven years—has seen over 400 of his players arrested or charged with crimes. This includes 107 DUI arrests (because millionaires can’t afford to call a cab after getting overserved), 43 domestic-abuse cases, 34 gun-related cases, and 84 situations comprising of disorderly conduct or brawling.

Week after week, the news out of the NFL is invariably negative. Baseball has its steroid problems, sure, but it’s got nothing on football when it comes to off-the-field incidents. The NHL and NBA look like the Boy Scouts in comparison to both. Yet, yet…the NFL is looking at about $10 billion in revenue for this upcoming season (for context, NBA revenue was $5 billion last year). NFL ratings continue to climb and continue to dominate. Merchandise sales have never been higher. Yet another billion-dollar-plus stadium will open this coming season (the 49ers’ new home in Santa Clara).

As the great Mel Brooks once said, “It’s good to be the King.”

So when hearing cable news hosts and pundits talk about the NFL being in jeopardy because of an image problem, just know this: Almost all fans see this kind of behavior and collectively shrug. No one expects these guys to be role models off the field.

As long as bets can be placed, nobody’s going to care about a DUI here or a bar fight there. This year’s Super Bowl alone saw a 21 percent increase in legal betting, with $119 million wagered in Nevada alone. Of course, that doesn’t include offshore internet gambling and the kind done through the local bookie, where the FBI estimates an additional $2.5 billion was bet on the game alone). Yup…as long as fantasy football teams can be drafted and created (now 30 million owners and counting) and tailgates with copious amount of food and spirits can be staged, apathy about player behavior will always rule the day. The ratings, the ticket sales, the billions the networks are paying for TV rights all back that theory up, along with this recent ESPN poll asking the following question:

How much have the NFL’s recent arrests and off-field incidents negatively affected your view of the league?

78 percent say a little or not at all.

PR problem?

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It’s no problem as far as the NFL is concerned.

As a society, we just want our football and all the instant gratification that comes with it.

Players come and go. Some stay clean, some get hurt, some get arrested.

All are expendable. All can be replaced.

As Gordon Gekko once explained to Bud Fox: “It’s all about bucks, kid. Everything else is just conversation.”

And that’s why all the image problems in the world won’t ever stop the most popular and lucrative sport in American history from expanding its empire.

It’s all about bucks, kid.