Thursday, March 30, 2006

Making the Squad:
The Passion of the Dorie

She sees all. Knows all. Judges all. So watch it, Tubby.

I just hope that the NFL Network is bringing your family closer together the way it's doing for mine. Case in point: Over the weekend, my wife and I spent quality time in front of the tube taking in a marathon of Miami Dolphins Cheerleaders: Making the Squad, a "reality-based" program detailing the ups and downs -- well, really just the downs -- of the women hoping to win a spot with the 2005 Dolphins cheerleaders.

Men tuning in hoping for a little T&A (or a lot) will be disappointed by the show, because it makes an earnest effort to portray the would-be cheerleaders as human beings. The women come across as intelligent, articulate and driven. We see them not as bubbleheads or bobbleheads but as devoted athletes and dedicated performers.

Then, just when the show has painted this three-dimensional portrait, Dorie Grogan comes along and takes a box-cutter to it.

Dorie is introduced to us as the team's "director of event entertainment" and the outgoing "director of cheerleading." A former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who has been terrorizing the Miami squad since 1996, Dorie tells us that 2005 will be her last year overseeing the selection process. And as that process gets rolling, it quickly becomes clear just what Dorie Grogan is looking for in a cheerleader: Dorie Grogan. Except with maybe an eating disorder. After five minutes of screen time for Dorie, my wife observed, "This woman has every single bad thing about her that you see in an evil sorority president." And as a former sorority president, she's qualified to make that judgment.

Let me just take a second to point out that I don't actually know Dorie Grogan, the person. I only know Dorie Grogan, the character portrayed on Making the Squad. For all I know, Dorie spends her spare time rescuing pandas or hammering out peace treaties. But she doesn't do any of that on the show, and I only know what I see on television.

The yin to Dorie's crazy yang in this train wreck is Heather Phillips, who in 2005 had just become the team's new "director of cheerleading." A former Dolphins cheerleader captain herself and then a reporter for a Miami TV station, Phillips is being "shown the ropes" by Dorie, who is "helping" her learn how to "run" the cheerleading operation. That's what they tell us anyway. In reality, Dorie wants Heather dead and doesn't care who knows it. Whenever Heather says "Yes," Dorie says "No." Any of the "girls" that Heather likes, Dorie is determined to destroy. When Heather acts with kindness, Dorie laughs with contempt. It didn't take long for both Tracy and I to realize that despite Phillips' fancy new title, she was going to have to pry the pom-poms and whistle out of Dorie's cold, dead hands. Sure enough, the Dolphins' current front-office directory tells us that Dorie is once again "director of event entertainment and cheerleaders," while Phillips has been busted down to "assistant director of cheerleaders." Welcome to the fucking jungle, baby. Kill or be killed.

But those changes were still in the future when Making the Squad began filming at the Dolphins' complex (or thereabouts) in the summer (or thereabouts) of 2005.

The show unfolds over only three episodes, so it doesn't waste our time with a lot of character development. But that's OK. The important thing is that Dorie, Heather and the gang are giving us a crash course in what it takes to be an NFL cheerleader (pep, a pretty smile, floppy hair, etc.). More important, they spell out for us the cardinal sins of cheerleading. (And those sins have nothing to do with the ladies' room at Banana Joe's.) Some things, the show teaches us, are utterly unacceptable for a member of Dorie's squad. Some things will cost you your spot on the team, if not your self-esteem and your very soul.

Take a wild guess what they are.

Turns out the modern NFL cheer squad is more of a dance line than a true cheerleading unit. These women don't do pyramids, after all, and they don't get catapulted into the air. So to make the team, a woman must have rhythm. She must have grace. She must know how to "work it." And she must be able to kick so high that she bangs her forehead with her knee. And yet ... on this show we don't see a single woman get eliminated from consideration because she can't dance, or because she can't kick high enough.

We're told that a cheerleader also must have a smile on her face at all times. Regardless of whether she's exhausted, or her feet hurt, or it's too hot or too cold, she's expected to keep smiling. Fans are out for a good time, and cheerleaders must not be wet blankets. If they can't see all thirty-two of your teeth from the upper deck, you aren't much of a cheerleader. And yet ... we don't see a single woman get eliminated from consideration because she can't keep a smile in place.

And we learn that the cheerleader is an ambassador for the franchise. As the Dolphins website describes it, "The job of a Miami Dolphins Cheerleader is to be a lady at all times, to be gracious and kind to those she comes into contact with and to support and uphold the impeccable image of the Miami Dolphins organization." And yet ... we don't see a single woman get eliminated from consideration because she isn't gracious and kind to those she comes into contact with.

We do, however, see one hopeful after another get her ass handed to her by Dorie for failing to support and uphold the impeccable image of the Miami Dolphins organization. What is that image? No fatties allowed.

In the first of the three episodes, more than 100 prospective rookie cheerleaders try out for the squad. Each woman (er, "girl") gets a fleeting chance to wiggle and jiggle for the amusement of Dorie and her retinue, and then it's cut-down time. About half will be heading home, and we get to sit in on the first of several roster-chopping sessions. Dorie, Heather and a motley assortment of judges (unidentified cheerleader types, some disc jockey and a guy in a wheelchair) get together to weigh (heh) the merits of each applicant. Each discussion includes a variation of this exchange:
Dorie: "How about Number 34?"
Judges: (In unison) "Yes ..."
Dorie: "No."
Judges: "... No."
Dorie: "Yeah, no. She's got a ... tummy problem. ... How about Number 56?"
Judges: (Muttering but no consensus.)
Phillips: "I'll say yes."
Dorie: "You say yes?"
Phillips: "Ah ... well ... "
Dorie: "Don't you thing she has a ... weight concern?"
Phillips: "OK ... yeah ... then no."
Now, I'm willing to entertain the idea that this is just the way the show is edited, but nobody's putting these words in Dorie's mouth. Over the course of the three episodes, every time a woman is sent home -- or is threatened with being sent home -- it's because of a "tummy problem" or "weight issues" or some other euphemism for "you disgust me." I'm not even inferring here; the judges tell us they're shooting down the fatties.

There is some consolation, however, because in the first two rounds of cuts (which were clearly made on the same day), none of the cuttees is actually told why she was eliminated. They're disappointed, of course -- some wander off in tears, shaking their heads in disbelief -- but they're the lucky ones. From this point forward, everyone who's eliminated has to sit down with Dorie, who tells her to her face just what a monster she is. Heather Phillips is there too, but only watches, frozen in terror as Dorie sucks the life energy from each woman and discards the husk.

While the rookies are being pared down, we get to meet some of the veterans. As you'd expect, seniority cuts no ice with Dorie, and these "girls" get run through the soul-grinder, too. I made you, and I can destroy you. The veteran who gets it worst, by far, is Ashley, a rookie in 2004 who has come back for 2005 in ... not the greatest shape, I suppose. The woman is indeed a little thick around the middle, at least as far as cheerleaders go, but she's hardly a beast. She looks good and healthy. Regardless, Dorie slaps her around like a cat with a mouse.

As an avid scholar of the game, I like to think I've got a pretty good idea of how NFL coaches go about cutting players. I saw Dave Campo do it on HBO's Hard Knocks. I saw Jack Del Rio do it on NFL Network's Jaguars Summer. And I read how Brian Billick does it in Next Man Up When these coaches cut a guy, they always try to let him down easy. They tell him that he's a great kid, that getting waived is his chance to catch on with another team, that he might even wind up back with the team on the practice squad. They tell him "this hurts me as much as you." Even if they don't mean it, they still do it, because it's the right thing to do. Because that's how our civil society operates.

Yeah, well, Dorie don't play that. Eyes afire, she sits down with poor, doomed Ashley and sinks the fangs in deep. By showing up out of shape, she hisses, you're doing more than letting yourself down. You're letting the team down. You're a disappointment to your teammates, and you're a disappointment to the Miami Dolphins organization. Ah, the Miami Dolphins. Remember, this is the team whose running back missed all of 2004 and the first four games of '05 because he loves smoking dope so much. This is the team that paid David Boston $2 million in 2004. This is the team that went into the 2005 season with Gus Frerotte as its starting quarterback. And Ashley's weight is the disappointment?

Poor Ashley's 2004 bio page identified her favorite holiday as Thanksgiving. I bet she wishes she'd said Lent.

Ashley was just one of many summoned before Dorie and the increasingly lifeless Heather in the cafeteria (ha!) of the Dolphins complex. One candidate -- now that I think about it, it may have even been Ashley -- is told that she has a tummy issue and one week to show improvement or hit the bricks. One week! As best I can tell, short of surgery, there are two ways to "slim down" your abdominal region:
  1. Consume fewer calories (though never less than the baseline amount needed to prevent a starvation response) and increase the number of calories you burn through exercise. This creates a caloric deficit while preserving muscle and increasing metabolism, which in turn prompts your body to burn fat.
  2. Take diuretics by the handful and live on saltines.
Guess which one produces "results" in a week.

This woman got the thumb anyway, so it doesn't matter. Except to any little girls who might be watching, who just got one doozy of a message.

One of the rookies the show followed closely was an engaging, enthusiastic woman in a cropped Junior Seau jersey whose name I unfortunately can't recall. We saw her make the team (yay!), but she's nowhere to be found on the Dolphins cheerleaders website. That's probably a bad sign. (Go here to see a 2005 team photo. When you mouse over each cheerleader, that woman's name -- and half of them are named Lauren -- pops up, and you can click to see her bio. But with at least three of the women, you get nothing. The Commisar Vanishes. ) Anyway, this young lady is oozing with excitement as she survives one round of cuts after another. As it's getting down to crunch time, Dorie tells her that she has, of course, some weight issues that she really needs to work on. In the saddest single scene of the entire show, the panicked cheerleader candidate immediately dashes out of the cafeteria, falls to the ground outside, in the dark, and starts doing ab exercises. Crunch time indeed. I'm glad I'm not the one who has to tell her that spot reduction is impossible. Talk about heartbreaking.

After seeing so many healthy-looking women criticized for their weight "problems," a Making the Squad viewer becomes understandably desensitized. But just when you're going completely numb, the producers play the irony card from the bottom of the deck and show us footage of a young Dorie as a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. See Dorie wear that ridiculous, dated outfit. See Dorie flip her big hair. See Dorie escort Tom Landry at Texas Stadium. See Dorie pose for the swimsuit calendar.

I don't think Dorie would have made the 2005 Miami Dolphins cheerleaders.

Back at the Dolphins complex, it was during one of the cafeteria cut-down sessions that Heather Phillips' elevator finally made it to the top floor, albeit briefly. Dorie was happily slashing away at another poor "girl" when the candidate abruptly thanked the ladies for the opportunity, stood up and walked away. Phillips turned to Dorie and observed that the woman had been about to cry. Dorie's response: Was she? I didn't notice.

Ladies! Want to know what it feels like to have Dorie tear your throat open with her teeth? The 2006 Miami Dolphins cheerleader auditions are Saturday, April 8!

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Yeah, kicking was the Colts' problem

All the radioactive dust appears to have settled out of the air following the Indianapolis Colts' signing of former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri. Raise your hand if, like me, you're more surprised by the reaction to the deal than the deal itself. For one thing, the use of the word "traitor"* has thankfully been kept to a minimum in New England, where, wonder of wonders, many Patriot fans have chosen to remember Vinatieri with fondness and even acknowledge that after all he'd done for them, he had every right to chase as much money as possible. More people seem to be blaming the team for (understandably) refusing to pay Vinatieri's price than are blaming Vinatieri for (understandably) asking it. Miracles never cease.

Even more heartwarming in this story is that both Vinatieri and the Colts got exactly what they wanted.

Vinatieri got the career-capping, long-term contract he was seeking: five-years for $12 million, including a $3.5 million signing bonus. He gets to kick for a team with a supposedly yardage-gobbling offense, which means a higher percentage of short field goals, and he gets to kick indoors after a decade on the frozen sod -- or at least the frozen painted dirt -- of first Foxboro and later Gillette. I've come to love the little bastard, and I'm happy for him.

The Colts, meanwhile, got what they've deluded themselves into thinking was their "one missing piece": a clutch kicker.

I can understand why the Indianapolis brain trust would be reluctant to watch the tape of the Colts' painful, embarrassing loss in the divisional round of the playoffs. But they really should go back and review he footage, because as it stands, they've somehow concluded that Indy lost the game only because Mike Vanderjagt botched the tying 46-yard field goal with less than a minute to go.

We can all agree that Vanderjagt is a horse's ass who had worn out his welcome in Indianapolis, if not the United States, well before that grisly January Sunday. And while laying the loss to Pittsburgh squarely at his precious Canadian feet is tempting, it's also wrong. The Colts didn't lose because Vanderjagt failed in the final minute; they lost because the entire team -- players and coaches -- failed in the first 59 minutes. The Steelers were simply better prepared and better coached. They had a better strategy, better execution. They were the better team. The Steelers came screaming out of the tunnel and built a 14-point first-quarter lead, while the Colts gave themselves headaches trying to figure out why their game plan was suddenly failing them when it had worked so well in September and October. Sure, the Colts clawed their way back into the game, but Vanderjagt wouldn't have even been in position to miss the tying kick if the officials hadn't thieved the game-clinching interception from the Steelers. (But, you know, you'd never hear Pittsburgh fans complain about officiating. That's for losers!)

When you consider that the Colts' season began unraveling with the loss to the Chargers in the 14th game, you realize it was for the best that they lost to Pittsburgh. Let's say Vanderjagt actually got the ball through the uprights. (Better yet, let's say Peyton Manning used the two downs before the kick to try to get Vanderjagt into better position, rather than throw deep passes that fooled no one.) If the Colts tied it, then somehow won in overtime, they'd have then hosted Denver in the AFC Championship Game. And they would have gone into the game with the same script they used all season, and they'd have lost because by that point, the Colts were ... I don't want to say bad, because they weren't. What they were was predictable. And uninspired. And that isn't the kicker's fault. It's the coaches'. It's the organization's.

By all means, put a boot on Mike Vanderjagt's ass. But don't think getting rid of him is going to solve what's killing the team. And don't think that bringing in Adam Vinatieri is going to do it, either.

*The "traitor" issue: I was just sure that the fans in Boston were going to burn Vinatieri in effigy, because the Patriots-Colts "rivalry" is one of the most bizarre in sports. It's sort of like Yankees-Red Sox, except the polarity is totally screwy.

Prior to 2004, the Red Sox had never beaten the Yankees when it counted, so the relationship between the teams was only a "rivalry" in the sense that a nail has a rivalry with a hammer. The Yankees -- smugly superior, perennial winners, longtime stake through the heart of Red Sox Nation -- drove Boston fans up the wall. And the largest indignity of it all? The Yankees didn't seem to care. Now think about Colts-Patriots. For whatever reason, fans of the three-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots just can't seem to get over the six-time playoff-choking Indianapolis Colts. They utterly despise Manning. They get weirdly defensive about Tom Brady. The Colts have yet to beat the Patriots when it counts, and yet the Patriots' fans are totally hung up on Indy. Makes no sense to me.

(And speaking of the Yankees and Red Sox, I have to ask this about Johnny Damon: Since when is it a treasonous act to get the best deal you can? Sure, Damon followed the money to New York -- the same way he followed the money to Boston from Oakland four years earlier. The guy came up with the Kansas City Royals, for pete's sake, and he arrived in Boston as a free agent. Just like nearly every other key member of the Series-winning 2004 Sox. Stow the outrage.)

Friday, March 24, 2006

Patriots put Tom's money
where their mouth is

David Givens signs with the Titans. Willie McGinest signs with the Browns. Tim Dwight signs with the Jets. Adam Vinatieri signs with the Colts, for the love of God. The New England Patriots have never been afraid to let players -- even "core" players -- walk away if the team doesn't think they're worth the money. That's the Patriot Way. And the Patriot Way has put three rings on Bob Kraft's fingers, not to mention one on Vladimir Putin's, so you can't discount their way of doing business.

But if I'm Tom Brady, questions are starting to bubble up inside my pretty head. About this time last year, Brady's own three Super Bowl rings were clinking against a conference table as he negotiated a contract extension with the Patriots. The deal he eventually signed produced a golden shower of praise because Brady -- unlike a certain Kenny Chesney fan with a horseshoe on his helmet -- took less money than he could have commanded in free agency in order to help out the team. As Brady explained it:
"In this game, the more one player gets, the more he takes away from what others can get. Is it going to make me feel any better to make an extra million, which, after taxes, is about $500,000? That million might be more important to the team."
Might be, but we don't know as yet because the team refuses to spend it. Not on the best clutch kicker in NFL history. Not on the all-time postseason sack leader. And certainly not on free agents, as the only player the Pats picked up this spring is Reche Caldwell (cue cartoon honking). According to the calculations at, as of Wednesday, the Patriots were something like $18.5 million under the salary cap for 2006. Just imagine if Brady had held out for that extra million!

Perhaps the Patriots will carry that $18.5 million into the season and use it to extend other key players -- but don't count on it. Deion Branch, Dan Koppen, Richard Seymour and Asante Samuel are all in line to be unrestricted free agents next year. Each stands to collect extra-long green when (if) he hits the open market. The question is: Will the Patriots pay the asking price, or will they let them walk? Keep in mind that each also has two Super Bowl rings, so the take-less-and-have-a-shot-at-a-championship argument is somewhat blunted. David Patten followed the money last year; these guys may, too. And know who's a free agent in 2008? Tedy Bruschi. If sentiment didn't translate into cash for Vinatieri, it won't for Bruschi, either, if he still wants to play. If I'm Brady, maybe I'm not lying awake at night (next to Bridget Moynihan) wondering if that extra million I spotted the team will go toward keeping one or more of my friends in Foxboro. But I may be wondering it in my dreams.

So Tom Brady may have been jobbed. That's my first thought for the day.

Moving on, possibly the most celebrated aspect of the Patriot Way is the team's ability to fill roster spots with unheralded later-round picks and totally undrafted dudes rather than write up fat contracts for shiny free agents. One of the great things about unheralded later-round picks and undrafted dudes is that you don't need $18.5 million worth of cap space to sign them. Sixth-rounder Brady, for example, won Super Bowl XXXVI while playing for peanuts, while $100 million hat rack Drew Bledsoe rotted on the bench. But this strategy only works as long as the kind of guys you need for your team remain unheralded.

The NFL coaching ranks include some of the most brilliant tacticians in all of sports. But by and large, the coaching profession is not one know for its, uh, originality. When a certain strategy -- either brand new or recycled -- proves itself a success, it's only a matter of time before the entire league is on board. ("Cover 2," anyone?) And the same goes for front-office strategies. One franchise develops an edge, and in time everybody else catches up. It never fails, and it's always been thus.

Take the early Cleveland Browns. They were all but unbeatable (52-4-3) in the All-America Football Conference of the 1940s, then lorded over the NFL through the 1950s. The Browns' run was partially a function of great players -- Marion Motley, Otto Graham, Bill Willis, Jim Brown -- but their sheer dominance of pro football was a product of coaching. Paul Brown was an NFL pioneer in his use of film study, classroom instruction and playbooks. He was the first coach with full-time, year-round assistants, the first to station assistants up in the pres box. The Browns' preparation was so thorough, so far beyond anything other NFL teams were doing at the time, that for a decade Cleveland wiped its feet on other teams.

Then, in time, every other team did exactly what Paul Brown was doing. The Browns lost their edge, and Art Modell fired Paul Brown. Modell never could read a room.

The lesson in this for the Patriots? The Patriot Way has produced three NFL championships in the past five years (as opposed to none for, say, the Redskin Way). At some point, the strategy New England has pursued will cease being the Patriot Way and become simply The Way Things Are Done. It isn't all that hard to identify the kinds of players the Patriots are looking for. Hell, there's a book that does a pretty good job of sketching it out. And when a dozen or more teams are looking for those same players, it becomes less likely that they're going to be available in the lower rounds, and it becomes more likely that you're going to have to pay through the nose for them.

To cite a different sport, early in this decade the Oakland A's made the playoffs year after year by playing moneyball, but they could never win a world championship. Then the Red Sox, pursuing a similar strategy, won the 2004 Series. Why? Because they had money coming out their arses and could pay twice as much for the kinds of guys Billy Beane used to get for cheap. For the A's, moneyball -- statistical analysis paired with the judicious application of limited resources -- lost out to MONEYBALL: statistical analysis paired with barges full of cash. As the landscape changed for the A's, so will it probably change for the Patriots.

In Belichick We Trust is still the cry in New England, as it should be. Bill Belichick is still a mastermind, and if anyone can stay a step ahead of a league in which the Patriot Way is just S.O.P., I'd lay good money that it's him. But if I were Tom Brady, and I was watching another half-dozen members of my team's Old Guard walk away while the franchise sits on the extra million I passed up for the good of the team, I'd be wondering what the future holds.

And I'd be putting ground glass in Matt Cassel's food.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

As usual, baseball has it only half right

The latest book in the pile is Pigskin: The Early Years of Pro Football by Robert W. Peterson. The book spends too much time early on chasing down the answer to the trivia question "Who was the very first pro football player?" (Answer: Pudge Heffelfinger, maybe, but no one knows for sure.) Nevertheless, it's still an excellent account of the evolution of the pro game from the late 1800s until, of course, the 1958 NFL Championship Game. In the epilogue, however, Peterson gives a brief overview of how the NFL came to dominate American sports after The Greatest Game Ever Played. Unfortunately for such an extensively researched book, it includes this nugget of conventional wisdom:
"In contrast with the practice in major league baseball, the network-television bonanza is shared equally by all NFL teams."
Hopefully we can lay this one to rest once and for all: As far as television revenue is concerned, the NFL and Major League Baseball have nearly identical systems. In both leagues, network money is divided evenly, while local TV money belongs to the individual teams and is not shared. The critical difference is that in the NFL, nearly all television income comes from network contracts, while in baseball, the vast majority of TV revenue is generated on the local level.

Each year, the NFL plays only 256 regular season games and 11 playoff games. Every one of them is on either a broadcast or cable network. (Those of us with the dish are able to watch all 267, provided we don't have jobs or family responsibilities.) Four networks (Fox, CBS, NBC and ESPN) pay the league $3.1 billion a year -- that's billion with a B -- for the rights to the games, and that revenue is split 32 ways. This is why the league has a salary cap of more than $100 million. Local TV revenue? Well, each team is free to make as much money as it can off telecasts of its desultory exhibition games. This is not a large hill of beans -- almost negligible, actually.

Major League Baseball, meanwhile, has contracts with only two networks. Fox pays $2.5 billion over six years; ESPN, $2.4 billion over eight. That money is split 30 ways, and amounts to about one-quarter the revenue per team that NFL franchises receive. Baseball plays 2,430 regular season games a year. The networks cover maybe 120 of them, plus the playoffs. Dish or no dish, you ain't seeing most of the others. The thousands of other games are covered by local TV. And that's the problem. The New York Yankees, in an enormous media market, can make 10 times or more what a small-market club like the Kansas City Royals can bring in. That's why baseball doesn't have -- really can't have -- a salary cap.

None of this is about defending baseball's counterproductive and self-destructive revenue system. Baseball teams could decide to share local TV money the same way they split network money. They just don't.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Exclusive: First look at Vikings' new unis

As a native Minnesotan, I applaud new Vikings owner Zygi Wilf for his already extensive efforts to hose off the foul, greasy residue of disappointment that has coated the franchise since Bud Grant turned the keys over to Jerry Burns. Kicking Mike Tice's ass all the way to Florida with one foot and Daunte Culpepper's with the other made clear to one and all that the new boss was most definitely not the same as the old boss.

When Wilf arrived in the Gopher State, there were a lot of changes that needed to be made. The inmates were running the asylum. The stadium was a dump. Megan's Law was on the books. Hell, the only thing that didn't need changing was the Vikings' classic uniforms.

Well, a new broom always sweeps clean, and now Zygmunt is going ahead and changing the uniforms, too. It's his team, and he can do what he wants with it, so you're not going to catch me criticizing him. Besides, as purty as the current duds are, they've gone without a major revision through four lost Super Bowls and three lost NFC title games. Perhaps a change really is in order.

The team won't say what it's whipping up, but rumors are flying that the new getups will include an all-purple option, cashing in on the monochromatic craze. Down and Distance has seen the new uniforms, and can confirm that this is indeed the case. The Minnesota Vikings' new home uniforms can be seen here, and the road unis are here.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The straw man on the injured list

Just get in the back, kid. Coach says you're injured.

I've been spending the past month making my way through a stack of football books I didn't have time to read during the regular season. Right now I'm working on Next Man Up by John Feinstein. It's a behind-the-scenes, day-by-day account of the 2004 NFL season as experienced by the Baltimore Ravens. So naturally the cover of the book shows the Carolina Panthers taking the field (that's Chris Weinke at far right).

Anyway, I'm toodling along and I come across this line, in reference to the NFL's weekly injury report:
"There's no doubt that the league monitors the injured list closely in the interest of fairness, so teams can't simply lie or even hedge too much about injuries. Of course, the injury list is also important to gamblers since knowing who will and won't play affects betting lines and who bets on whom. The league would love people to believe that its popularity is based solely on the wonders of the game. ... The fact is that a large chunk of the league's popularity is driven by the fascination people have with betting on the games, both legally and illegally." (emphasis added)
This is a point I see made over and over by football writers: The NFL, the argument goes, is engaged in hypocrisy because on one hand it takes a public stance against gambling, while on the other it provides valuable information to gamblers in the form of the injury report. This argument, like many made by football writers, is predicated either on ignorance of NFL history or on willful disregard of it.

The NFL instituted the weekly injury report nearly six decades ago in the wake of the Hapes-Filchcock scandal. (Here's the part where you say: The what?) Before the 1946 NFL Championship Game, gamblers had befriended New York Giants players Merle Hapes and Frank Filchcock, plied them with free drinks and, I suppose, "broads," and tried to get them to throw the game. Though neither player accepted the money offered, neither reported the bribe attempts to the league, either. After the Giants lost the NFL title to the inferior (but nevertheless favored by 10 points) Chicago Bears, rumors of a fix spread. Hapes and Filchcock ended up suspended, essentially for life. And as NFL commissioner Bert Bell worked to clean up the league's image after the scandal, he declared:
"The game and its players must be kept free from corruption, from all bribes and offers of bribes and from any possible 'fixing' of games." (quoted in America's Game by Michael MacCambridge)
Central to this effort, of course, was preventing players (and others who could affect the outcome of games) from consorting with gambling interests. At the time, teams were constantly shadowed, and players constantly approached, by gamblers willing to pay generously for inside information that would provide a betting edge. Anyone who sold such information ended up compromised and susceptible to coercion -- threatened to throw a game, or shave points, or else be exposed at the cost of his career. No piece of inside information was more valuable than a team's injury status. That's why at the start of the 1947 season the league began publishing a weekly list of those players who were injured and less than likely to play. Because injury news was now widely disseminated, it was no longer "inside" information.

So, the injury report was not instituted in the interest of "fairness" between teams. From the beginning, the league acknowledged that the report existed because of gambling. League officials don't live in a fantasy world. They knew then and they know now that "a large chunk of the NFL's popularity" breaks down to money changing hands every Monday morning. They can't change that, but what they can do is make every effort to prevent the money wagered on the outcome of a game from determining the outcome of that game. Yes, the net overall effect of the injury report has been to make the game more attractive as a betting proposition -- but it has reduced the game's exposure to tampering.

When the subject is the NFL injury report, Feinstein and those like him are attacking a straw man. They cluck their tongues at the NFL and indict the league for pretending that the injury report is not gambling-related. But they're the ones who are pretending. They're pretending that the NFL is pretending that it's not gambling-related. It makes better copy -- it's "funny" -- to frame the issue this way, but it's intellectually dishonest and historically ignorant.

And it's old. It was old all the way back in 1991, when disgraced L.A. Stallions quarterback Jimmy Dix asked: "Why, Joe? Why is there an injury report in pro football, huh? Nobody else has a f---ing injury report, but football does, so the f---ing gamblers will know the spread."

Words to live by.