Two NFL teams publicly mock a league policy. A third publishes an entire website to discredit league discipline. A coach subtweets a disputed suspension. A star player posts a video in which he says: “We really don’t have reason to trust the NFL.” Another performs a “robot” celebration to lampoon the league’s expectations for player behavior.
Viewed independently, these episodes are simple and entertaining morsels that feed our quick-take consumption of sports culture. Taken together, however, they represent an unprecedented rebellion against NFL authority from almost every facet of its realm. Unrest is not uncommon in pro football, or in any industry, but the public display we have seen in recent years has been both stark and damaging.
This space is normally reserved for analysis of Sunday’s on-field developments, but it is impossible this week to ignore — of all things — two tweets from the Eagles and Browns. After scoring touchdowns, each team tweeted a GIF of an electronic football game. Both teams used a paper football attached to a wooden stick to provide a crude representation of how they scored.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) October 16, 2016
The tweets, of course, were in clear reference to the NFL’s recent decision to enforce a long-standing policy that prohibits teams from distributing digital game video on their own during games. The Carolina Panthers also mocked the edict in Week 5, tweeting the words “AndersonToBenjamin.gif” (instead of the actual GIF) after a touchdown, but later deleted it.
You would have to be a big NFL policy geek to care about this particular pillow fight. In essence, teams are upset that the league decided a month into the season to begin enforcing, with fines, a policy that had long been ignored. Teams want to post video to drive engagement, a common social media strategy, but the league and its broadcasters want to control distribution and maximize monetization from a central source.
The details don’t matter as much as the decision by teams to dispute it openly. This isn’t merely a few social media interns getting cute. If it were, you can be certain the Browns and Eagles would have deleted the tweets immediately. Instead, as of early Monday morning, they had been either retweeted or liked nearly 15,000 times.
I view this sarcastic protest in line with other public dissents we’ve seen recently. Remember, the New England Patriots still maintain a website that questions whether the league’s integrity was “seriously compromised” by its Deflategate investigation and discipline. A year later, the Kansas City Chiefs publicly criticized the league’s “inconsistent enforcement of its tampering policies.”
Earlier this season, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton tweeted a photograph of the Patriots’ tribute to suspended quarterback Tom Brady. Payton, whom the NFL suspended for the 2012 season as part of its contested findings in the Bountygate scandal, said he was one of a few people who could “understand what Tom’s going through.”
Three weeks ago, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman posted a video on The Players’ Tribune encouraging players to view the NFL as an employer that “really could care less” about its players. In what was an extraordinary indictment of the NFL’s corporate morality, Sherman said the league is such a “bottom-line business” that it will ignore its own guidelines for removing injured players from games if it compromises revenue generation.
And finally, in Week 5, Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins placed the football on the ground after scoring a touchdown and walked like a robot to the sideline. Later, he told reporters that his intent was to “troll the whole situation” amid the NFL’s renewed emphasis on sportsmanship.
Look, the NFL has never operated in complete harmony. Its history, like that of almost every other collection of human beings, is pocked with public disputes. Al Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders until his death in 2011, once sued the league, and for decades he undermined its attempts to rein him in. There were two player strikes in a five-year period in the 1980s. Former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon once protested then-commissioner Pete Rozelle’s policy against wearing corporate logos by donning a headband that read “Rozelle.”
Notably, Rozelle laughed and said McMahon’s stunt was “funny as hell.” He didn’t rescind a $5,000 fine, but everyone moved on with the appropriate level of gravity.
This feels different, however. Perhaps it seems more intense because it’s happening now, but the collective audacity of NFL employees implies a lack of respect for its authority and — worse — a distrust in the way it operates. It feeds a public notion that the league is a bungling business, not one that stands atop the economic food chain in the sports industry, and invites an erosion of its corporate reputation.
The league hasn’t cared much about these ancillary issues as its popularity and television ratings remained high. All publicity is good publicity, as long as the money is rolling in.
But at a time when ratings have dropped for the first time in recent memory, all potential causes — big, small, real or imagined — must be taken seriously. When your business is under consistent criticism from its own members, and when they are aggrieved or cavalier enough to broadcast it in a way that mocks the league’s centralized authority, it’s time to pay attention.