This is why the right-way NFL will fail. It has to fail. Things that don’t make sense must always fail, or people will continue to replicate them, and then we’re moving toward something other than that which is best, in this case the best possible football, something that the NFL has been and should continue to be about at its core. That said, if there was going to be a team that worshipped at the feet of monuments to Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry and Chuck Noll, it was going to be the Steelers. That’s fine, too; just because a generation is dying out doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have a team. What bothers me is the lack of any critical thought whatsoever (at least, this certainly seems to be the case when it’s a young black athlete involved…eager to see how the team deals with Big Ben…). Holmes smoked some pot and wrote some tasteless things on the internet? Great, send him to the dean from Animal House, because that’s the only person I know who gives a damn about that sort of thing.
The fact of the matter is that NFL teams are no longer moral arbiters for the societies in which they exist, despite what Roger Goodell would have you believe, and when they try to act like they are, they fail even worse. Big Ben, James Harrison, these are all Steelers who could just as easily be ejected on the logic the Steelers applied to Holmes. Somehow sending a slightly troubled top tier WR to another team where he’ll achieve success sends a message other than “we are stubbornly stuck in our narrow view of what is and isn’t important in the league”? You don’t like him? Find a way to work with him so that his undeniable talent works for your team. You really don’t like him? Keep him on the bench for a couple of games; then HE is the one getting the message. NFL teams as judges and juries only seem to either minimize actual crimes by overstating the importance of the trivial.
The point is that the idea that we “send messages” to third parties through the lives of players is one of the aspects of old school, group-think right-way NFL football that needs to die sooner rather than later. Scapegoats are the trademark of backwards civilizations, and as far as the NFL goes, this is only slightly dumber than the McNabb trade, because at least the Eagles got a second round pick and had a backup plan. Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin we have teams like the Jets, Bengals, and Patriots, who all seem to get that we’re living in an age of shifting value scales, with the shift being away from morality tales and towards maximizing efficiency. Certainly, there are exceptions (though if Leonard Little’s case didn’t’ cross the line, what does?), but Holmes is far from the sort of case that establishes the ethics of an organization. Instead, it just reflects a bafflingly shortsighted view of what is and is not important to a football team. The Jets will live with a four game suspension, and will put a system of incentives and disincentives in place to maximize Holmes’s potential in New York. They embrace that they are an economic entity out to use economic tools to maximize success. Meanwhile the Steelers will have gutted their talent base on offense for the sake of sending some obscure message to…well, that’s the question. Do we really think that this is affecting Roethlisberger one way or another? Do fans even care about weed anymore (more than they do about their drunk creep of a QB)?
Instead, this seems to be a message not to any person or persons, but instead to a bygone era, to the same dead statues of former legends that would have done what they just did. If the McNabb trade was a sacrifice at the altar of winners/“winners”, this was a nod to an era where you could choose between winning, losing, and “winning OUR way”. Thankfully, that was the first element of the right-way NFL to die, leaving only a choice between two opposites, removing the heavy handed morality play from what is a philosophically complicated and brutal game. The choice of “right/wrong” (again, clear exceptions aside) has been left to the courts and the commissioner (the only good product of Goodell’s conduct policy). All that is left for the teams to decide is how to best win, nothing more (and yes, this sort of simple economics can and should consider personal issues as they relate to a player and his team). The statues and monuments are just that: Memories, and as it turns out, Al Davis, who will never be so well memorialized by the league, might have been right after all when it came to how teams should win.