by Ken Reed

For decades, the United States government has basically given NFL owners and executives a free pass to run their league anyway they see fit. However, the NFL’s arrogance, sloppiness, and lack of anything resembling ethical behavior –fueled by the ugly Ray Rice case –has angered government leaders this past year.

“Pro football is supposed to be an entity that operates in a magical constitution-free zone of antitrust exemptions and tax breaks …,” writes sportswriter Dave Zirin. “But those days appear to be as dead as playoff hopes in Oakland … The federal government is out for a chunk of Roger Goodell’s flesh and the evidence of this is there for anyone who cares to look.”

It’s not that the government is angered by the apparent lack of moral direction exhibited by Goodell and his franchise owners, although let’s hope that’s part of it. It’s that they’re angry about how Goodell’s poor leadership has led to a spotlight being pointed at all the crazy benefits the government has granted our country’s pro football monopoly.

Basically, what’s angering Washington D.C. politicians is Goodell’s failure to keep the public and media’s attention on the games played on Sundays.

The NFL’s inability to effectively manage itself has resulted in the government striking out at the league. As Zirin aptly points out, in recent months, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has rescinded the owner-friendly NFL blackout rule that prevented local telecasts of games played in stadiums paid for by taxpayer dollars. The FCC is also considering banning the use of the “Redskins” nickname (read: racial slur) over broadcast television.

Moreover, there have been several senators questioning the NFL’s tax-free status (worth an estimated $10 million a year to the league) and the many other special government perks the league has been blessed with through the years.

The latest sign the government is no longer the protector of the NFL shield came when the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) launched surprise raids this past week of five NFL teams as part of an investigation into prescription drug abuse in the league.

In a piece on the drug raids for the Washington Post, Sally Jenkins and Rick Maese wrote:

“The inspections, which entailed bag searches and questioning of team doctors by Drug Enforcement Administration agents, were based on the suspicion that NFL teams dispense drugs illegally to keep players on the field in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, according to a senior law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation.”

Clearly, the government’s hands-off policy regarding the NFL is over. If Goodell’s inept handling of the Ray Rice case wasn’t enough for NFL owners to consider firing him, you’d think the increasing intrusion of the government into how the league operates would be enough for the owners to seriously consider canning their embattled commissioner.

Goodell and his minions sense this. Hense the damage-control letter and news release regarding the Adrian Peterson situation. The “We are here to protect all kids” release was clearly done not out of any sense of concern for abused kids but as a brand management and crisis communications strategy.

It’s amazing Goodell still has his job. He should be a dead-man walking when it comes to his job security.

It appears “the only thing that can save him now is the greed of owners and good, old-fangled fans who don’t give a lick about off-the-field matters as long as their guy is strappin’ up Sunday,” writes Washington Post columnist Mike Wise.

While in many ways — attendance, TV ratings, etc. — the NFL has never been more popular and successful, it simultaneously has never been in more trouble. In fact, football at all levels is feeling the heat.

As Zirin concludes:

“Whether we are talking about the covered-up dangers of youth football, the plantation economy of the NCAA, or the corporate culture of the NFL, the feds are not done with the people who run this sport. Not by a longshot.”

Let’s hope that’s the case.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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