Once upon a time pro football operated in an atmosphere of innocence. It was a sport growing with popularity. A second league was created 45 years ago to challenge the 40-year-old National Football League. Ultimately, the enemy leagues – the NFL and the upstart American Football League – merged after competing for players. Too expensive. Too much trickery involved.
The result of the shotgun wedding was an event that would become known as the Super Bowl. The event gradually would develop into the most watched, most publicized sporting event in the nation – an integral part of Americana.
And for so long professional football remained innocent.
Innocent compared to evil-spirited game that endures today.
For certain, we loved the nocturnal shenanigans of Joe Willie Namath generations ago. A lissome lady on each arm at a Super Bowl. We laughed at it. And surely, there were a mob of us who were a slight bit envious. He was the $425,000 Quarterback and he dominated headlines and our imaginations.
Naughty. S'pose so.
Innocent? Not quite innocent, but really nothing damaging, nothing threatening our democracy.
Sure, sneaking prize college athletes out the back-room dormitory windows to hide them to keep them from signing with the other league. Or grabbing a Billy Cannon coming off the field at the goalposts after a bowl game and signing him to a loaded contract to keep him from teams in the other league.
Kidnapping the other league's quarterbacks – stealing away a John Brodie?
It was all innocent, clever, newsworthy – and humorous.
And when the games were played, the leagues operating under the grand banner of the NFL, when the Super Bowls were played, we said, "So what?"
It was a big giggle as we watched the NFL steal away fans and TV popularity away from Major League Baseball.
Now we hit the week before Super Bowl XLIX, and pro football has been robbed of its innocence. The overriding national – and worldwide – sports story will be the competing coaches of the Super Bowl teams. The newspapers – we still exist, even if the NFL is no longer mindful of us – television and the Internet's amateur bloggers will tell of cheating, of scandal. Of celebrity athletes celebrating with preening gestures, often obscene groping. Of other misconduct, of domestic violence, of concussions.
Both Super Bowl coaches – Bill Belichick of the Patriots and Pete Carroll of the Seahawks – are sullied by historical lack of innocence. By character deficiencies.
Belichick now for a second time charged with controversial accusations of unethical activity. First, video spying on opponent's signaled messages and a half-million dollar fine. And now of under-inflating footballs the Patriots used on offense during last week's NFC championship game. Carroll, with the continued lugging of baggage from the violations at Southern California when he coached college football.
The soft footballs story will dominate this Super Bowl prelude. All this week long and likely after the game itself.
The NFL – quite sadly for me having been hanging around the entire Super Bowl era – has morphed into a sordid mess.
It's not Pete Rozelle's league. Not any more. Roger Goodell runs the NFL now. And while the money rolls, pro football has usurped decent portions of American culture and contaminated it.
The league claims to be investigating the business of under-inflated footballs. The softer they are below league pressure specifications the better Tom Brady can grip them. And the better Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman can catch them.
Belichick, with his reputation, has been slammed constantly by media keepers of sports morality codes.
At a televised press conference Saturday, Belichick again was in denial. "We followed every rule," he said.
Brady was in denial. He told the media during the week during a press conference that he would never cheat with improperly-pumped footballs.
Other pro athletes – among them Troy Aikman and Phil Simms – emerged to claim Brady was a liar.
It made for plentiful media fodder in the buildup to another Super Bowl. The media had been joined by others who had actually gripped The Duke – the NFL's football – and threw it into this national mission to rescue America from football, sports, entertainment and money-grabbing immorality.
It is what we the people do – fuss over how much air is pumped into game footballs.
Innocence is long gone.
Now there is the other side of the flipping coin.
Carroll reentered the NFL after a sojourn at Southern Cal. He revived that program, and then left it in the lurch, doomed to years of NCAA sanctions. His USC teams won national championships in 2003 and 2004.
But after the 2004 championship, the NCAA stripped away Southern Cal's national championship. Southern California was punished with a reduction of 30 football scholarships and banned from bowl competition for two years. Reggie Bush's Heisman Trophy had to be forfeited. The major violation discovered by NCAA investigators involved a rent-free house for Bush's family – plus other goodies.
Just as Belichick this past week, Carroll back then used the denial card. He knew nothing about it. But the Los Angeles Times and other media charged that Carroll had full knowledge of the violations. Just before the NCAA dropped the sanctions on Southern Cal in 2010, Carroll fled to the Seahawks. Back into the NFL – where he had coached the Jets and the Patriots immediately before Belichick.
Carroll had abandoned his USC team.
Southern Cal's football program, growing back gradually, continues to suffer since Carroll fled.
Carroll and Belichick must not be totally discredited. They do operate with guile. But sometimes their tactics are clever – and legal, within the NFL's rules.
Belichick surprised John Harbaugh and the Ravens in a tight playoff game by deploying interior linemen as eligible pass receivers. What Belichick did was legal under the league rules, but was trickery and slippery. Those plays and the cursed soft balls – alleged – got the Patriots into this Super Bowl XLIX.
Carroll pulled off the Seahawks' sudden-death overtime victory over the Packers – a classic championship game for the ages – with a fake field goal and a successful onside kickoff. Plus a scrambling, broken and successful two-point conversion.
The Seahawks had been down 16-0. And a fake field goal resulted in a touchdown pass. The recovered onside kickoff enabled the Seahawks to score their late go-ahead touchdown.
In the end zone after the 24-yard touchdown run, Marshawn Lynch groped himself in a delicate area. Roger Goodell – oh, there he is – fined Lynch $20,000 for the obscene gesture.
There will be lots of intrigue but little innocence as the nation counts down this week to Super Bowl XLIX.