What the NFL needs: More like the Jets
The "No Fun League" could use a steadier diet of personality and individualism
Moments before he was to appear on live television in California last week, Tony Gonzalez, perhaps the greatest tight end ever to play professional football, headed for the men's room. The seconds ticked and the producers fidgeted. The nerves of a staff sweating the embarrassment of live TV cameras rolling while the guest is in the bathroom were soothed only by the sound of a toilet finally flushing. Unfazed by the deadline, Gonzalez walked coolly onto the set. No pressure at all.
And during his appearance on the ESPN program "Jim Rome is Burning," Gonzalez offered the most important television moments of the sports week by providing a valuable glimpse into the attitude of many football players as they head toward a labor showdown with the owners. Gonzalez believes there will be a lockout. He believes the NFL is more sincere in its desire to make money than it is in ensuring the safety of the players. He is one of the most durable athletes to ever play the game, yet nonetheless is convinced that ownership's proposal to increase the regular season by two games is a mistake.
However, his best moment on the show wasn't produced by his words, but rather by his withering expression in reaction to Rome's mention of adding games. By itself, the look could have incinerated whatever credibility exists in the league's insistence on an 18-game season.
It was a powerful performance. Gonzalez's candor provided a stark contrast to the opaque comments of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who had appeared on the program a day earlier. Coincidentally, the Gonzalez interview occurred during a month in which a cult of personality was making a much-needed comeback in the NFL, courtesy of the brash and dangerous New York Jets.
The Jets were finally silenced for the season by Pittsburgh a few days ago in the AFC Championship Game. But during their playoff run up to Sunday, they reminded us that football is a brutal, physical game played by real people with real identities and real emotions -- a refreshing return to reality in a time when candor from professional athletes is too-often discouraged for fear of offending some of sliver of the game's jersey-and-memorabilia-buying fan base.
The Jets showed us that their personalities are as real as the stakes in the playoffs. Their approach to the rivalry with the Patriots was not cavalier or contrived, but it was essential to reaching their goal of being a champion, or of being respected as one. The Jets didn't just yap; they played with a tremendous fury, outplaying and outcoaching the Patriots. They destroyed New England. And it benefited the sport.
Curiously, instead of being applauded as the originals they are, the Jets were dismissed by some as a sideshow. That says more about the dearth of characters and personality in the league -- and how unaccustomed we've become to witnessing the passion of competition -- than it does about New York's ability as a football team. The stifling of individualism is encouraged in most of our professional leagues. Players routinely call the NFL the "No Fun League," while league officials hand out bigger fines for criticizing referees than for being arrested for DUI. Agents and other handlers overly worry that too many outrageous sound bites might damage their client's "brand," leading to the decline of, say, video game sales. And even a great number of fans and writers and executives (in baseball, especially) seem to believe that games of emotion and skill and luck can be distilled into a bloodless science.
The Jets made it clear that the beating heart is still central to the game.
Underneath the rhetoric coming from head coach Rex Ryan, cornerback Antonio Cromartie, linebacker Bart Scott and others was the competitor's flame, which is what draws us to the game in the first place. The rivalry and the dislike of the Patriots are real, as they should be. New England and the Jets have been at each other's throats for decades, even when they've been fighting to avoid last place. Ryan is trying to establish credibility for his team and himself, and the best way to do that is to replace the Patriots on the AFC throne, or at least annex a share of it.
Unlike the Steelers, whose three Super Bowl appearances over the past six years all came without beating the Patriots in the playoffs -- they've lost two AFC title games at home to New England in the past eight years -- the Jets stared down Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and the mystique, and beat them.
Believing you can win and proving it when it counts most is the essence of competition. And with competition comes color. Belichick and Brady are good and arrogant and unsubtle about letting their challengers know they've been the standard for a decade. The Patriots burn privately to win as much as the Jets do publicly. New England attempted to dismiss the loud Jets through a veneer of businesslike detachment, which in a way is its own form of trash talk. New York merely (and wonderfully, if you happen to like circling games on the calendar months in advance) returned the favor when it most counted: a raucous week of big talk that led to a 28-21 divisional-round win over the Pats in Foxborough.
When it was game time, nobody slipped into the safe house of corporate cliché. No one worried about his brand. The talk was validated by the win.
The Jets' bravado and Gonzalez's boardroom perspectives might be uncomfortable at times for some -- the league warned against trash talk, and has been grim on the subject of labor -- but both ultimately were good for anyone who has an interest in the people who play these games for a living. Fans rarely have much patience for millionaire athletes discussing the business side of their lives, and thus, during labor strife, judge the players harshly. Fans tend to have a curious relationship with their golden heroes, at once envious of their gene pool yet disdainful of the idea that the pro athlete is a fully vested business partner with the men who wear the suits and buy the teams and sign the checks.
Gonzalez, like Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward did earlier in the season, put his labor concerns in terms more easily digestible for the fan: the health of the players. Safety -- at least the potential for increased physical deterioration of the player -- is the one issue that might resonate with a public that historically has wanted its athletes to just shut up and play.
These numbers are incontrovertible: During the 2010 regular season, 352 players were placed on injured reserve, according to the union. That's more than 20 percent of the total number of active players (53-man rosters, 32 teams) who started the season. One in every five -- a staggering figure. And that total is closer to 500 injured-reserve players if offseason workouts, training camp and preseason games are included, says George Atallah, the assistant executive director for external affairs at the NFLPA.
After the 16-game season and one playoff game, Brady underwent foot surgery. Michael Vick was beaten to a pulp by the time the Eagles' season ended. Tony Romo was lost for the year six games into it. Adding another two games to that kind of physical carnage seems to cross the line into negligence.
Gonzalez offered a potential solution: Add two more playoff games, which could generate extra interest and limit the injury liability for players in less-meaningful regular-season games.
In the upcoming weeks, as the game on the field ends with the Super Bowl and the explosive labor strife gets closer to igniting, Gonzalez's willingness to offer a glimpse into what some of his peers are thinking will be important. It isn't as though Goodell or Jerry Jones or Robert Kraft is the one taking a helmet-to-helmet hit. Football represents Sunday fun and games for fans, while the labor issues get in the way of the beer, the pizza and the good times. But for the players, this is their industry. This is how they earn a living, and their perspective and input into how their business works deserves the respect of our attention.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42