Important Lessons From Week One of the NFL Season

Ignoring the protests of baseball fans, this past weekend saw the current national pastime kick off its regular season, once again bringing professional football to the televisions of countless Americans.  In a league with the parity of the National Football League, the opening weekend is one filled with championship dreams for fans of just about every team.  All teams are tied going into the first weekend.  It isn’t baseball, where the lack of a salary cap, the differing goals of team owners, and the “pay to win” mentality of the best funded franchises doom a good number of teams to irrelevance before the first pitch is thrown.  (Believe me, as a Pirate fan, I went through many a year where breaking the .500 barrier was a known impossibility, let alone making the playoffs.)  It is not the college version of the sport, where the few teams with legitimate championship hopes fill their schedule with over-matched opponents that then seem like impressive wins, while adding just enough competition to keep their strength of schedule respectable, in a quest to get the attention of those who can grant them a spot in the championship game (or 4 team playoff, no real difference).  No, this is professional football, where the draft and the cap have mostly put an end to dynasties.  Each year, a few teams will be great, a few horrid, but most will be average.  For a sports league, this is an incredible situation, and is more than likely one of many reasons that the NFL is far above all competitors.  Up until the last week of the regular season, many teams are still competing for playoff spots, and once you make the playoffs, anything can happen.

Even with a season that stays interesting through out, there are lessons you can learn from the first week, and this one was no different.  We have learned that the Steelers have a very suspect defense after barely holding on against Cleveland.  We learned that whichever member of the atheist fantasy football league mentioned on The Scathing Atheist podcast who drafted Tony Romo is in serious trouble.  And we learned, thanks to TMZ, exactly what Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens did to earn his 2 game suspension. (TRIGGER WARNING: Linked Video is a horrible example of domestic violence.)

Two games.  Two games and a standing ovation.

To put the two games into perspective, lets look at some other NFL suspensions.   On July 13, 2006, Odell Thurman was suspended 4 games for missing a scheduled drug test.  He was later suspended for 2 seasons for a DUI charge.  In October of 2006, Albert Haynesworth got suspended for 5 games for stomping on an opposing player.  2010 saw Steeler qb Ben Roethlisberger suspended for 6 games, reduced to 4, for an accusation of sexual assault.   2011 and misdemeanor assault saw Cedric Benson suspended for 3 games.  Before the 2014 season even began, Brandon Meriweather was suspended for 2 games for an illegal hit.  Looking over the violators of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, it becomes apparent that failing a drug test automatically costs a player 4 games the vast majority of the time.  Meanwhile, knocking your fiance out cold on video cost Ray Rice 2 games.

Two games and a standing ovation.

After handing down the draconian 2 game suspension, the NFL revamped their policy dealing with domestic violence:

“Effective immediately, violations of the Personal Conduct Policy regarding assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault that involve physical force will be subject to a suspension without pay of six games for a first offense,” Goodell writes, though the league may choose to make a suspension longer or shorter depending on various factors. “A second offense will result in banishment from the NFL.”

Wait, “sexual assault that involve(s) physical force will be subject to a suspension … of six games…”  What?  How the fuck is there not a “zero tolerance” policy regarding rape?

I was raised in a household that bled black and gold.  My mother is Catholic, convinced with every atom making up her body that she will go to heaven when her days on earth are over, yet I learned that Sunday’s were for football years before I was told they were also for Mass.  I was brought up with Steeler football, and Pirate baseball.  As I got older, the larger family structure added Penguin hockey to that duo.  I never watched the NBA growing up due to the lack of a Pittsburgh team, though Pitt basketball was a television event.  It was a sports household; on Steeler Sunday’s you could hear my mom screaming at the television from a block away.  For many years I was just as devoted as those who raised me, even though many of my friends looked at me a bit strangely, wondering why I cared so much about something so meaningless.

While the NFL continues to grow every year, they, and the Steelers, lost me in 2010.  I’ll still check the paper to find out the score, and watch the game with my mom if I’m home when it is on, but my days of Terrible Towel waving and Steel Curtain cheering are over as long as the quarterback is someone I believe is more than likely a rapist.  Perhaps even worse than seeing a reminder of rape culture taking snaps under center every Sunday is the reaction of the group I once was a member of, Steeler fans.  For them, the women were “sluts” who were “asking for it,” vindictively trying to get rich by accusing an innocent, rich, sports hero.  It doesn’t surprise me that the accuser didn’t want the case to continue in one example; some fans were attacking her because her accusations could take the Steeler’s star quarterback away from them.  It was a disturbing moment for me.  Like many others, I assume, I would watch players in all sports do disgusting things yet still be welcomed with standing ovations from the fans, as long as they were winning.  “He may be a cheater (rapist, murderer, drug dealer, armed robber) but damn it, he’s our cheater (rapist, murderer, drug dealer, armed robber), and he gets so many sacks (home runs, goals, interceptions, stolen bases, three pointers, etc)!”  I would always lie to myself, and think that Pittsburgh fans were different, that we would boo them off the field.  Big Ben took that lie away from me, and he took the Steelers from me as well.  (I still tell myself that lie.  “If Ryan Braun was a Pirate, we would have booed him off the field.”  Hopefully I won’t see that put to the test.)

Before this morning, the only video evidence of the altercation between Ray Rice and his now wife was of the aftermath.  Now you can watch this professional athlete use his fist to knock his fiance senseless.  This coming Thursday against the Steelers will mark the final game of his suspension, and he will be back on the field soon, to the cheers of those who care far more about how many yards he gains than what damage he causes another human being off the field.  Two games won’t stop actions like this, any more than 6 games will.  But for a league courting women fans, a league that depends on us to make it profitable, to see a video like this come to light after doling out the pitiful 2 game suspension is a nightmare.

The fans may give Ray Rice a standing ovation the next time he takes the field in Baltimore, but the question is how many Ravens fans, like I did with the Steelers, will tune out as long as the team makes scum like this millionaires?  As much as sports is in my genes, as much as I was raised with the Steelers in place of religion, I still tuned out.  How much easier for a casual fan to walk away?

Thursday night sees the NFL spotlight one of their fiercest divisional rivalries.  The Ravens versus the Steelers.  It wasn’t that long ago that it would have been the highlight of my week.  Now it is just an example of how sports stars are above the law, and how little respect we give women when athletes are involved.  Until this culture changes, the NFL has lost my attention.

I’ll be watching the Pirates chase the wildcard.


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