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NFL seeks to shift fans' focus

September 09, 2007|Jim Litke | Associated Press

The award for NFL-player-arrested-closest-to-kickoff was locked up by Browns cornerback Leigh Bodden, picked up barely 26 hours before the season opener and accused of getting abusive with police after driving backward down the one-way arrivals area at the Cleveland airport.

I know. Who hasn't gone to the airport to pick up somebody these past few years and been tempted to do the same? But whatever emboldened Bodden to cross that line -- he pleaded not guilty to two misdemeanor charges just ahead of Thursday night's Saints-Colts game at Indianapolis -- is something Commissioner Roger Goodell will be dealing with for months to come.

The good news for the league is the season is long and filled with highlights, and people have notoriously short memories. The bad news is the games on the field must be awfully good from the get-go to wrest fans' attention away from some dreadful, destructive off-season stunts.

That might not be as easy as the commissioner thinks.

"I believe that our fans recognize the way we have dealt with these issues," Goodell said Wednesday after attending a groundbreaking for a new Meadowlands stadium that will house the Jets and Giants. "I hope they respect it and support it. And I think they are ready to talk about football now, and start rooting for their teams, their players and coaches. That's what makes our game special."

Fans should -- and do -- recognize that Goodell has handled every issue that has crossed his desk in a no-nonsense manner. He didn't wait for cover from the legal system to hand out lengthy suspensions to Pacman Jones and Tank Johnson, and wisely dealt with Michael Vick when the time was right. While his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, often came off as too cautious, Goodell's swift, commonsense approach to meting out justice refreshingly mirrors many of the fans' own.

That's not to say this season will be smooth sailing. Far from it.

Still to be resolved is whether the league and the players union will do right by former players who have suffered crippling injuries and are struggling to pay medical bills, a campaign that's gained increasing visibility as one-time stars such as Mike Ditka have taken up the cause and carried it to Congress. There's also the question of concussions suffered by current players, something the league only recently made a priority.

Also lurking is an investigation by the Albany County (N.Y.) District Attorney's office into an Internet drug operation that dispensed human growth hormone, resulting in the suspensions of Pats safety Rodney Harrison, Cowboys quarterback coach Wade Wilson and the firing of Richard Ryzde, a former doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The problem is all that negative news had no competition for the headlines. There weren't real games -- only exhibitions and the league's ad campaign featuring a handful of clean, marquee stars calling mom or performing other, similarly heartwarming tasks. That's about to change.

It's worth remembering the NFL came back from messy off-seasons before -- anybody remember the Ray Lewis and Rae Carruth sagas? Both pro baseball and hockey wormed their way back into the fans' good graces after losing part or all of a season due to labor problems. And the NFL, historically, has been much more adept at damage control than those two leagues combined.

There's certainly some justice that from here on out, the league will rely on all its players to make us forget the abuses of a few. The announcers and analysts aren't NFL employees in the strict sense, but they're likely to follow the company line -- unless, or until, they run out of material. Once the hunt for story lines extends beyond the sidelines, look out.

Remember how quickly the Vikings' lousy performance was anchored to that embarrassing little cruise on Lake Minnetonka in 2005? Well, if the Falcons' fortunes sink due to poor quarterback play, count on hearing Vick's name sooner rather than later.

Speaking of fast starts, the league is probably hoping that Broncos running back Travis Henry, among others, finds his feet in a hurry. Denver is at Buffalo on Sunday, barely two weeks after an Atlanta-area judge, taking note of Henry's expensive taste in cars and jewelry, ordered him to provide $3,000 a month in child support for one of the nine kids Henry has fathered by nine different women.

There's a reason the NFL didn't feature Henry reading to his kids in the online and television ad campaign that launched last week. And the last thing the league needs is for somebody to remind you of that now.

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