AS AMERICA prepares for Super Bowl XXXV—a game whose best player, the Ravens' Ray Lewis, was charged with two murders committed hours after last year's Super Bowl—it is tempting to view last week's murder-conspiracy conviction of former Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth as another in a long line of examples of the violent, lawless excess among NFL players. Surely such celebrated cases as those of Carruth and Lewis (the murder charges against Lewis were dropped after he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice), as well as the impending trial of former Packers tight end Mark Chmura on charges of sexual assault and child enticement, will strike at the popularity of an obviously troubled game, yes?
No. Not even close. To understand why the Super Bowl will again be the country's most-watched sporting event, and to understand why, despite its courtroom dramas, the NFL is by far the healthiest league in pro sports, consider a meeting last week of a nondescript bunch sequestered not in a Charlotte jury room but in a Dallas hotel conference room.
That's where 32 NFL owners made the sort of decision they've been making for almost 40 years. The subject: revenue sharing. Currently the home team and visiting team split game-day revenue (from tickets, concessions and the like) 60-40. Under that rule a team like the Eagles, who annually risk top-10 revenue clubs in Dallas, New York and Washington, take in more money from their road trips than do the Rams, who make less lucrative jaunts to Atlanta and New Orleans.
Mindful of the hurdle such financial inequity presents to their plans for realignment—why, for instance, would the Cardinals give up their profitable place in the NFC East?—the owners did what they always do. They made the problem go away, by agreeing to divide the 40% visiting-team stake equally among all teams at the end of each season. Minor as that sounds, it recalled the fateful day in 1961 when NFL owners voted to share forever all television revenue.
Such unity of purpose has provided long-term financial viability to each team in the league, which is why a club from Green Bay—population 98,000—can win a Super Bowl. It's why two teams that were a combined 15-17 last year can be playing this Sunday for the NFL tide. It's why your team could be Super Bowl-bound next year. The lesson of the NFL is this (baseball, are you listening?): Give the fan a reasonable hope every year, and he's more likely to view the troubles of a few players as isolated incidents rather than as symbols of a league in turmoil.