- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
Pretend for a moment the corporate interests of the NFL win the day and, starting now, all talk that can be construed as rancorous, boastful or even mildly threatening stops. Every NFL player, including those wearing Jets colors, decides to spend the week alternately praising his opponent and quoting Balzac.
Would an advent of civility improve the product? Would it better serve the public?
More to the point, what would be left? There are six days between games, and we're already drowning in speculation, prediction and analysis. As fans, we are bombarded with more information regarding schemes, tendencies and packages than we can possibly understand. The round-the-clock dissection has created a more educated public -- and, I would argue, a more fulfilling viewing experience -- but there are times when it threatens to remove the human element. The tendency is to see players as automatons, mere instruments of strategy, rather than fallible people who commit remarkable athletic feats for fun (ours) and profit (theirs).
The only salvation is personality. Rex Ryan and the Jets are the best thing that has happened to the league this year. Inside their words, you'll find the echoes of Joe Namath and Jim McMahon and Terrell Owens and every other high-octane, high-decibel mouth who has polarized fans for decades. The idea of heroes and antiheroes is the engine that drives publicity and interest, but the NFL -- once again attempting to protect its image while misunderstanding its true nature -- deems it necessary to clear its throat and stroke its beard in disapproval.
Personality, after all, must be curbed. The fear that someone -- Antonio Cromartie? Bart Scott? -- might say something that harms the brand prompted the league to legislate personality out of the equation. Squeamish about the Jets' rhetorical escalation (Cromartie v. Brady, Scott v. Welker) leading up to the game in New England, the league took action. In a nonmetaphorical sense, speech is no longer guaranteed to be free.
In one of the more subjective and borderline bizarre dictates in a league known for them, it was decided (threatened?) that trash talk during the week will be taken into account on game days. Players who talk nasty during the week and back it up on game day with illegal hits will be punished more severely -- either through fines or suspensions or both -- than those who simply think bad thoughts during the week and act on them once the game begins.
Hurt a guy without the words and the penalty is different. Words, in this case, provide the special circumstances. Watching the Jets' behavior after the game -- including Scott's virtuoso rant to Sal Paolantonio -- created serious doubts as to whether the league's edict had created any soul-searching among the green and white.
To be fair, the NFL has adopted significant and clear-eyed policies on head injuries and the hits that cause them. And as one who has lobbied for greater vigilance on that front, it's incumbent upon me to say that threatening serious bodily harm against an opponent, as Scott did regarding Welker, is irresponsible and clearly falls within the league's jurisdiction. But the idea that calling someone a name during the week could result in punishment for actions during the game seems too Big Brother even for the NFL.
It also sidesteps an important truth: This is not a gentleman's game. There are many gentlemen who play it, but that doesn't change the nature of the endeavor. It is not a civil enterprise, so demanding its participants to engage in civility is a losing proposition.
A good portion of the league's fan base isn't civil, either. The entire operation is run on hyperbole and bloodlust, and the fans who buy the tickets and the gear demand both. Put it this way: The Jets-Pats game drew the highest television rating of any divisional game in history. Do you think those historic numbers can be attributed to people dying to see what kind of coverage schemes Ryan devised to confuse Tom Brady?
No, it was the lure of contrasting personalities -- and yes, I contend Bill Belichick's anti-personality is a fascinating personality in itself -- that drove the interest and the ratings. (The contrast was even more pronounced when Belichick decided to bench Welker for the first drive. Apparently Welker's crafty references to feet in a news conference didn't impress his coach.) The NFL needs to see the Jets, Ryan and the collective looseness of their mouths for what they are: gifts.
The alternative is more analysis, more prognostication and more argument for argument's sake. All of that serves a purpose along the way, but it's not a very nutrient-rich diet. All we're asking is to see a few of the faces behind the facemasks, a few of the personalities charged with acting out the schemes.
And if they happen to be a little less palatable than the league would prefer? Well, that's a judgment we're more than willing to make on our own.
Personality. Panache. Popularity. All that mouthiness from Antonio Cromartie and the Jets has people paying attention, and that's a good thing. Don't you wish the killjoy NFL saw it that way?