NFL, old friend, we've called you here for this intervention, in front of millions of people who love you, because it's time to admit you have a problem: You are a drunk, so intoxicated by your own popularity that it impairs your judgment and makes you feel invincible. There are mean drunks and sentimental drunks and happy drunks and sloppy drunks, but you, NFL, are a pompous drunk. Your status as the nation's most successful sport, a money-making machine that takes in upwards of $9 billion per year, has you so buzzed that you think you can do anything, including putting a subpar product on the field, reaching ever deeper into your fans' pockets and sending mixed messages about player safety—without ever losing the public's affection.
Your three-week bender with the replacement officials was just the most recent example. As a league, you were embarrassing yourself the whole time, lurching around and putting out spin that the rent-a-refs were, in your own words, "performing admirably." You were so trashed that you thought you could fool us into believing that nonsense. We were angry at first, but then we felt almost sorry for you. It was painful to see you like that. A year ago you were a little tipsy, locking out the players but settling a labor dispute before any games were missed. This time you blacked out, and when you came to, almost a quarter of the season was gone.
After the Monday night Fail Mary pass in Seattle, you released a convoluted statement supporting the absurd touchdown call for Seahawks receiver Golden Tate on what should have been ruled an interception by Packers safety M.D. Jennings. It was another insult to our intelligence, as though you expected us to trust your words more than our own eyesight. Eventually you sobered up, realized what a spectacle you had made of yourself and reached a settlement with the referees' union. But we know your history, NFL. You haven't changed. It won't be long before you get another buzz on and start acting untouchable again.
Looking back, we should have picked up on the warning signs. Who knows where it all began? Maybe it was way back in the early 1990s, when you started forcing fans to buy meaningless preseason games (at regular-season prices!) as part of their season-ticket packages. A few years later came the notion of personal seat licenses, with teams charging fans for the right to buy season tickets. Then there was that incident at Super Bowl XLV in Dallas two years ago, when you sold tickets for seats that hadn't yet been built. Taking money for something that doesn't exist really takes brass, NFL, even if you eventually made amends to the fans who showed up holding worthless ducats. No wonder you thought we would accept any indignity.
You're so high on your own hype that you even believe you can contradict yourself with impunity. You trumpet your commitment to player safety by cracking down on the helmet-to-helmet contact that so often causes concussions, but you toss those concerns aside by putting more Thursday night games on the schedule, forcing teams to play with short recovery times (see page 52). Hypocritical? You don't seem to care. Heck, you're still talking up adding two more games to the season, an idea that was tabled during last year's lockout. The reason, you claim—not a little disingenuously—is that "people want more football."
But you can't go on like this, NFL. Your behavior is starting to catch up with you. When you hit the Saints with draconian penalties for their bounty system, the players challenged your authority and embarrassed you by having their suspensions overturned by a three-member outside panel. Not to mention you're embroiled in a class-action lawsuit filed by more than 3,000 former players involving concussion-related injuries. It turns out that you're not all-powerful after all.
It's partly our fault for being enablers. We were willing to put up with your excesses as long as we could still place our bets, draft our fantasy teams, get our fill of watching bone-crushing hits. We allowed you to get too full of yourself, to think of yourself as something grander than a sports league, something more like an empire. Your logo wasn't just a symbol, it became the Shield, and we heard former players talk of "protecting the integrity of the Shield." It all sounds so self-important. But empires often crumble from within, NFL, when they become too smug, too convinced of their own infallibility.
So, take a good look in the mirror. You might think you look fine now, but your pool of talent may soon start to shrink as concerns increase over the long-term effects of football's violence. You don't have much chance of international expansion because your sport hasn't taken hold in other countries the way baseball and basketball have. You need to clear your head and realize that fans' goodwill isn't guaranteed. Maybe you think you can shake your addiction to arrogance anytime you want, but it's not that easy. Don't wait until you hit rock bottom. Say it: "I'm the NFL, and I'm drunk on my own success." It's the first step to recovery.