NFL eager to get past uneasy offseason
July 21, 2013 3:00 AM

The start of training camps this week cannot come soon enough for the NFL.

After last season was filled with compelling story lines like the return of Peyton Manning and the emergence of Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick, the offseason has been marked by owners, front-office personnel and players having run-ins with the law.

The news included allegations of drunken driving, questionable business practices and, most infamously, murder.

It has highlighted not only the underside of the NFL family, but also the intense scrutiny that comes with being the nation’s largest and most popular sports league.

The offseason developments also reflect the unintended consequences of the league’s push to become a 365-day business with events spread throughout the year.

In years past, the news media might have been too distracted by basketball, hockey, baseball and golf to have spent much time writing about football in the spring and summer. That seems like a distant memory when an array of sports-focused news outlets make the NFL the subject of exhaustive coverage no matter the season.

“I don’t think Roger Goodell has had a quiet offseason,” said Robert A. Boland, who teaches sports management at New York University. “The more we know about pro athletes, the more we put them under a 365-day microscope, the more misbehavior will be captured on a camera phone.”

The NFL has dealt with negative stories before. In 2007, after a spate of high-profile incidents that included Michael Vick’s pleading guilty to a federal felony charge stemming from his involvement in a dogfighting ring, the league made a series of commercials highlighting the good citizenship of some of its players.

This year, however, the off-the-field questions seemed to multiply. Take the most dramatic occurrence this offseason, the murder charges filed against Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end. His arrest in June prompted a number of other story lines, including whether NFL players were more prone to being arrested. Geraldo Rivera speculated that the league essentially had a gang problem. The Patriots were criticized for not doing more to vet their players. The team’s efforts at damage control, including putting out a mea culpa by its owner and allowing fans to return Hernandez jerseys they had purchased, were also widely reported.

It did not help when Patriots defensive back Alfonzo Dennard was arrested and accused of driving drunk after he was sentenced to 30 days in jail and two years of probation for assaulting a police officer in April.

“From the beginning of the summer and the start of training camp, there’s a lot of down time, and there might be a tendency for more of the negative issues to crop up in the press,” said Bradley Shear, who teaches sports management at George Washington University and was a lawyer for the NFL Players Association. “The last five, six years, there are a lot of negative stories about the players. It’s the nature of the beast.”

While acknowledging the seriousness of the Hernandez case, the NFL, citing FBI statistics, said that only about 2 percent of the league’s nearly 3,000 players had been arrested, compared with 10 percent for the general population of men 20 to 34.

League officials and sports industry experts noted that the NFL had had its share of bad offseason stories before. Last year, it was the league’s prosecution of the New Orleans Saints’ bounty system, which began in March, a month after the Super Bowl.

Saints coach Sean Payton and the team’s defensive coordinator, general manager and assistant head coach were suspended, as were four players. Appeals followed, and the players’ suspensions were ultimately reduced. Fans were outraged in New Orleans, which had hosted the Super Bowl. Then the league locked out its officials for the start of the season, a move criticized by players, coaches and fans.

In spring and summer 2011, the owners locked out the players, putting the season in jeopardy. Lawsuits were filed. Mediators intervened. Players were outraged. Fans chewed their nails. Ultimately, the season began on time.

Rob Tilliss, who brokers team sales at Inner Circle Sports, said that just as stories about the business of the NFL were understandably overshadowed by more dramatic news this offseason, all of the news during the offseason will be overshadowed once the regular season begins.

“Since you’re the most popular sport in the country, you have incredible media attention, media exposure, voracious fans,” he said. “You put all that in the mixer, there’s a lot of interest.”

While the Hernandez case has been the league’s biggest challenge, it has had to confront other thorny topics. In April, agents from the FBI and the IRS raided the headquarters of Pilot Flying J, the family business of truck stops and convenience stores run by Jimmy Haslam, the owner of the Cleveland Browns.

A month later, lawmakers in Florida declined to vote on a series of tax breaks that would have helped the Dolphins renovate their stadium, essentially scuttling Miami’s bid to host Super Bowl L or LI. A deal to refurbish the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis fell through, a blow to the Rams.

In May, 10 members of Congress sent a letter to Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, urging him to change the team’s name. Other members of Congress urged the NFL and other leagues not to help the federal government publicize the Affordable Care Act.

In court, a federal judge ordered a mediator to get the league and the more than 4,000 retirees who accuse the NFL of deliberately hiding information about the effects of concussions, to try to settle their differences. Given the potential damages that could result from an extended lawsuit, just getting the sides to talk across a conference table can be counted as a positive step for the NFL

None of that is what the league wants to talk about. Instead, it wants to talk about what it does best: putting on widely watched games.

“The NFL is champing at the bit to have the action focused back on the field,” said Scott Rosner, who teaches in the sports business program at the University of Pennsylvania. “Very few good things can happen to your brand in the off-season.”

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