By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) Well, that was quite a week for the NFL. As training camps opened around the country, the return of football was intertwined with bigoted thoughts from one of their prime media mouthpieces and the tacit endorsement of domestic abuse from the commissioner and a franchise.
Then came the secondary skirmishes and non-apology apologies, which in at least the cases of Tony Dungy and ESPN's Stephen A. Smith only dug deeper holes. Twitter crackled and bibles banged, as phone lines throbbed with the noises of the lowing herd. The only place to find silence was from the offices of TV network executives and the league itself.
The NFL needn't say a thing. It doesn't have to care, because of us.
We're not going anywhere, and everyone knows it. For those of us in large part tied professionally to the NFL and for those just connected by heartstrings and gambling, the juxtaposition of revulsion and excitement last week was comical.
Here was my typical toss to a commercial break, boiled down to its bare essence: "This league should be ashamed of how highly placed media voices are allowed to openly denigrate homosexuals, and how casually they dismiss something like a player battering his wife. This has become unacceptable! Coming up next, the latest from the Bears' practice field, including news about a possible personnel change in their nickel package. Keep it here!"
It makes little sense, but we have figured out a way to justify both emotional channels. Call it cognitive dissonance, or call it hypocrisy. Both are correct.
The NFL is full of bad people who hold appalling beliefs and do bad things. Offseasons are a continuous string of arrests for any number of violent crimes, and we just want to know how many games the safety might miss for the aggravated assault.
On other fronts, commissioner Roger Goodell's shining shield now provides cover for the atavists seeking comfort in something resembling the collective consciousness of the 1950s, where women know their place, gays keep it on the down-low, hazing teaches youngsters the pecking order and the "Redskins" name is a clever honor, not a wicked insult. These NFL fans proud of their league's anachronism are the same ones who can still watch a Honeymooners episode without cringing, as Ralph Kramden shakes a clenched fist at his wife and bellows "One of these days, Alice…POW! Right in the kisser!"
Good stuff, right?
And this is all on top of the increasingly understood awful truth of the game itself: that we are celebrating the destruction of the human brain. As purely horrible as that is, I have found an island of justification where I can enjoy the spectacle – completely mercilessly -- as long as it's other people's kids doing it for my entertainment as highly paid professionals, fully informed of the risks. That does nothing to alleviate my sadness as I watch the neighborhood high schoolers trudging to the practice field with plastic brain-buckets in hand, but it makes Sundays (and Monday and Thursday nights) tolerable enough.
Goodell fights back with his own public-relations campaign of misinformation, trotting out the fake doctors to assure America's moms that everything is fine. The black actors in white lab coats smile reassuringly, and we hear tall tales of magic mouthguards and space-age helmets that make it all OK to drop Junior into the meat grinder.
Malcom Gladwell will likely be proved right when all is said and done. He said, "Football is going to turn into the army. It'll be one of those things that middle-class parents don't want their kids doing."
But for now, Goodell is emperor of a vast kingdom -- and like the mythical ruler, he's still safe behind the curtain.
"'I am Oz, the Great and Terrible,' spoke the beast, in a voice that was one great roar. Who are you, and why do you seek me?"
Because I still love pro football, even as each passing day should cause any critical thinker to reflect on all of it. A guilty pleasure just spent a long, rough week getting even guiltier.
The NFL. Great and Terrible.
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