Thanks to evidence in the Wells report released last week that seemed to indicate Tom Brady knew of and even encouraged tampering of game balls at various points of the 2014 season--including just prior to the AFC Championship game--the Patriots' star quarterback has been suspended for the first four weeks of the 2015 regular season.
Thanks to being found in possession of marijuana as well as being under the influence of the substance during a police traffic stop last summer, Steelers star running back Le'Veon Bell has been suspended for the first three games of the 2015 regular season.
Therefore, when the Patriots, the defending Super Bowl champions, host the Steelers, one of the marquee franchises in the NFL, in the regular season kickoff on September 10, the matchup will be without two of its most productive players--and in the case of Brady, maybe the biggest star in the game today.
Concerns about lackluster ratings have been expressed. And some have even wondered out loud if these suspensions (at least Brady's) could be delayed until after the opener.
However, wouldn't that be the wrong message to send, that one player is so important to the NFL, it would further damage its reputation by allowing him--even a huge superstar quarterback--to take part in its season opener in the face of being found culpable in a cheating scandal?
Whether you like it not, the NFL has spent literally decades making rules that have led many to caustically call it the No Fun League. If a player takes his helmet off while celebrating a touchdown or arguing with an official, his team is penalized 15 yards. If a player (or players) celebrates a score in an excessive fashion, that's another 15 yards. I was at a game at Heinz Field last December, when William Gay was penalized 15 yards for taunting simply because he folded his arms in the general direction of a Chiefs player (even though it was really meant for Lawrence Timmons as a means of celebrating the linebacker's awesome third down stop).
The NFL fines players for uniform violations and frowns upon individuality.
The NFL also came into prominence for developing a business-model that made sure every team had an equal chance to compete. And this model is why the Steelers and Packers, who play in two of the smaller markets, are every bit as marquee as the Patriots and Cowboys, who play in two of the biggest markets.
The NFL is now a billion dollar industry, where networks fight for contract rights and sponsors shell out top dollar to have their products aired during big (or even ordinary) contests.
The National Football League is so superb at marketing, it keeps the fans engaged 365 days a year now. When I was a kid, I didn't know who the Steelers played in Week 1 of an upcoming season until someone handed me one of those little schedules I could hang on my bedroom wall. Now, the announcement of the regular season schedule is an official "event" held in April, and I not only know who, when and where Pittsburgh will play in 2015, I know the same things about every team in the league--and the season is still four months away.
Brady is a huge star, but he's also a star that's been accused of cheating. Whether or not you think his knowledge or even encouragement of tampering with footballs was a big deal (I personally think it's overblown because I have no doubt many quarterbacks take part in this kind of thing), the fact is, you can't have fans (many of whom already believe in conspiracies, cheating and fixes) thinking things aren't on the up-and-up.
There wasn't a bigger star in the NFL in the early 60's than Paul Hornung, the decorated running back of the Packers, who, by that point, was the game's golden boy, a former Heisman Trophy winner at Notre Dame, part of two NFL champions in Green Bay, and the 1961 NFL MVP. However, he, along with Lions defensive lineman Alex Karras, were caught up in a gambling scandal and suspended for the entire 1963 season. Any commissioner in any league knows how damaging a gambling scandal can be. Pete Rozelle, the pioneering commissioner who helped make the NFL what it is today, he certainly knew, and that's why Hornung and Karras were punished so severely.
The NFL survived a year without its biggest star back during a time when it was still fighting with baseball, college football and even boxing for the top of the mountain in-terms of America's favorite pastime.
Back to Le'Veon Bell. By his actions and by engaging in something that was illegal, he put himself above the team. Not only that, but he could have endangered the lives of many people by driving impaired. Whether or not you think marijuana should be legalized in every state, the fact is it's a banned NFL substance, and any player dumb enough to partake in it during the season is a player who should be suspended.
You add the many drug suspensions to Spygate and Deflategate and mix in some other reprehensible incidents such as the double-murder trial that could have sent Ray Lewis to jail; the dog-fighting ring that did, in-fact, send Michael Vick to prison; the sexual assault scandal involving Ben Roethlisberger; and the domestic and child abuse controversies surrounding Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, and that's a lot for a league to overcome in a short period of time in-terms of public acceptance.
The NFL might seem like it's untouchable now. But I'll bet in the 1950's, nobody would have guessed that baseball would someday be considered a sport that was too boring, or that few would be able to name the heavyweight boxing champion.
It would be naive to suggest that stars don't drive the National Football League, because, like any other league, they do, and that's especially the case when it comes to quarterbacks. However, the league has turned itself into such a juggernaut and American pastime, I would watch the NFL Kickoff Classic on September 10, if it involved the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars, and that's because I love the sport so much.
The NFL is bigger than Tom Brady, and it's certainly bigger than Le'Veon Bell.
The NFL's empire is built on solid ground--not sand--and in-order for it to stay that way, even two of its top stars should and have been suspended for their damning transgressions.
Maybe the season opener won't be as great a matchup as it would have been with Brady and Bell involved. But just as many people will be tuned in, just as many people will be talking about the game the next day, and, years from now, just as many people (if not more) will still love the NFL.
The NFL became my favorite pastime long before Tom Brady and Le'Veon Bell came along, and it will continue to be my favorite sport long after they're both out of the game.