These stupid demonstrations are no longer entertaining or imaginative or even spontaneous. It's all such a nuisance, NFL players preening for the TV cameras after any old tackle, acting like they've won the Super Bowl after catching some ordinary pass for a first down, spinning the ball, motioning emphatically to signal a first down, running backward into the end zone, holding a ball out to taunt an opponent who can't quite catch up. It's everywhere you look, in virtually every game, all the time. And from the tone in Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's voice Friday, the league is poised to do something about it.
Where the issue of sportsmanship is concerned, there has been "some deterioration of conduct, not just things that are spontaneous with regard to celebrating," Tagliabue said in his annual pre-Super Bowl state of the league address. It isn't hard to figure out what deterioration the commissioner was talking about. He singled out the Redskins' Tre Johnson unintentionally hitting a referee a few weeks ago, but it's the intentional stuff that has truly hurt the product.
A guy runs down on special teams and tackles a return man inside the 20, and he runs into the end zone to declare how wonderful he is before pointing to the sky, leaping into the stands and taking two full minutes to get back to the sideline. All the while, television beams every move to viewers, including high school and Pop Warner players who think this is the way to get noticed in sports. Mark Gastineau's sack dance, offensive to many in the '80s, is now standard stuff. The Ickey Shuffle is downright cute compared to all the strutting and self-congratulatory garbage players ruin the game with now. "We have some behavior," Tagliabue said, "we can only describe as provocative but juvenile."
It's only due to get worse when the culture encourages such behavior, which is what the movie "Any Given Sunday" does when it has a player, after scoring a touchdown, drop an imaginary bomb that "kills" all his teammates in the end zone.
Tagliabue went to great lengths to point out that these shenanigans involve a tiny percentage of players and plays. But that didn't stop him from discussing the issue with players union chief Gene Upshaw Thursday. And it didn't stop Tagliabue and top officials from deciding to send game officials to the NFLPA meetings in March to discuss conduct, and what is disrespectful and unacceptable. Tagliabue said that during last Sunday's NFC championship game, players for the Rams and Buccaneers who were in street clothes, either injured or declared inactive, were close to going at each other during the afternoon. "We are concerned," he said more than once.
But the NFL's hands are hardly clean. The league, before it addresses the issue of player behavior, had better address its teams for even worse behavior. The NFC title game in St. Louis, Exhibit A, was a disgrace. Domed stadiums are loud enough as is. But the Rams' management took things to a shameful extreme. While the Buccaneers were trying to huddle, the Rams played music at a decibel level that would drown out the takeoff of a 757. It was done repeatedly and purposely. When did this become an acceptable practice in the NFL, to use artificial noise to gain a competitive advantage? I haven't heard one league official criticize the Rams. In fact, if the league wanted to, it could have ordered Rams' management to stop the intrusion two or three plays into the game. Even worse, there were times when the prerecorded sounds played right through the snap of the ball while Tampa Bay was running a play. The Rams might not be the only team doing this, but it's the most recent case that comes to mind.
Players see and hear these stupid cannons exploding during games, and they take their cue from the league that outrageous, unsportsmanlike behavior is not only acceptable, it's encouraged. For the league to turn a deaf ear to what the Rams have been doing is laughably hypocritical.
But the NFL isn't into self-criticism during Super Bowl week, regardless of problems that might be staring the league in the face. While Tagliabue, in my book, is well within his right to be annoyed at the on-field behavior, he expressed no such regret about the much more pressing issue of black coaches being virtually shut out when it comes to being considered for head positions.
Tagliabue went out of his way to say several times how "concerned" he is about problem behavior. But given several opportunities, he never expressed a similar concern that coaches such as Art Shell, a Hall of Famer with a winning record in five seasons as a head coach, went nearly five years without being interviewed for a head coaching vacancy. I'd love to hear Tagliabue express some concern over the fact--and it's a fact--that no team has interviewed Ted Cottrell, the coordinator for Buffalo's No. 1-rated defense, for a head coaching position this year. Asked specifically Friday about men such as Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells being allowed to hand-pick their successors, thus making the coaching fraternity even more exclusive, Tagliabue said he thinks that black coaches will be in that pipeline.
Please. The wait-until-it's-your-turn line angers qualified people. It's a tiresome put-off. And it's a burning issue among black coaches (and older players who are reluctant to consider coaching) that deserves more immediate attention than the league's image.
Does Tagliabue care about the issue of black coaches being treated fairly? Yes, personally he does. I know for a fact he worked behind the scenes to make certain the Bills gave every consideration to Cottrell before they hired Wade Phillips. Tagliabue's sense of fairness isn't at issue here; what is at issue is what I perceive to be his reluctance to take on the owners with the same level of annoyance he took on the players over their behavior. The commissioner had every chance to do that Friday, and instead took a pass.