There are many pro sports, but NFL is most professional
By GARY SHELTON
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 2001
There are times all you see are the warts. There are times you see the stodginess that comes with age, and the flaws that come from arrogance, and the tarnish that comes from the police blotter.
It is at times like this you roll your eyes at this entity called the National Football League.
Then you look around you, at the others on display.
And you know. As far as professional sports leagues go, the NFL is still the girl from Ipanema. And as she passes, each one she passes, goes "ooooh."
Prefer whichever sport you wish, but when it comes to leagues, this is the one that has it right. Of all the leagues that want your money, this one makes the most sense.
Baseball's next strike starts in, oh, about 15 minutes. The NBA is still waiting for Michael Jordan to put down his 7-iron and suit up again. The NHL will get interesting in June, and it will last all the way to, well, a little later in June.
Then there is the NFL, where the revenue sharing makes sense, where the salary cap makes sense, where the schedule makes sense, where the draft makes sense, where darned near everything this side of Little Danny Snyder makes sense.
Did you catch the news this week? The NFL, quick as a wink, approved yet another revenue-sharing plan by agreeing to pool the visitor's shares at all stadiums. Before you even knew it was an issue, bam, it had passed.
The very same day, baseball commissioner Bud Selig said he would like to move forward on a competitive-balance draft, but before the words could leave his lips, Mets owner Fred Wilpon was grousing. It didn't even get to the players before it looked impossible. And every time Selig mentions realignment, owners tell him to shift his office furniture instead.
So why is the NFL the best league?
It's best because one game a week fits into our own rhythms. Three days to second-guess the last game, three days to debate the next one, and game day.
It's best because 16 games a season means every one means something. In baseball, when exactly is the time period between when it's too early to talk about trends and too late? In basketball, when exactly do players remove the cruise control for the playoffs?
It's best because the game is perfect for TV, a quick blur of power and speed, followed by a break in which we can discuss what idiots the coordinators are.
It's best because you don't have to wait five years to see the guy your team drafted last year.
Most of all, it's best because of this:
Because of Ravens-Giants, for the title.
Because of Dilfer-Collins, the last gunfighters standing.
Yeah, yeah. As far as sexiness goes, this may be the NFL's ugliest Super Bowl in some time. But even in that you can find beauty. Because the best thing of all about the NFL is that there can be a Ravens-Giants Super Bowl this year. That there was a St. Louis-Tennessee Super Bowl last year. That there might be a Kansas City-New Orleans Super Bowl next year.
That's the glory of the NFL. Next year really may be worth waiting for.
Bottom line: If a team doesn't win, there is no one to blame but itself. You should live so long as to see the Devil Rays or Twins or Pirates in the World Series. But if you don't see the Bucs or Vikings or Steelers, it's their fault.
This year, six teams different from the year before won division titles. For the fourth straight season, five teams made the playoffs after missing in the year before. No other league can offer hope for the hopeless the way the NFL can. No other league can afford to laugh at Little Danny Snyder quite as robustly.
This is why the NFL makes other leagues envious. Baseball would love to fully share revenues, but how are you going to persuade big-market owners -- who seem to be playing in a league of their own -- to give up money to allow other teams to beat them. Baseball would love the salary cap. Good luck in getting it.
It is the sharing of revenues that makes the NFL go, as it has for 40 seasons now. It was in 1961 when commissioner Pete Rozelle, following the lead of the upstart AFL, suggested the owners share all television money (which then was the exorbitant figure of $320,000 a year) equally. There were only 14 owners then, and most had paid off team debts years before, and so the suggestion passed. Rozelle then lobbied until he had President John F. Kennedy's signature on a bill protecting the league from antitrust violations related to revenue sharing.
Can you imagine what would happen if the idea only occurred now? Can you imagine Paul Tagliabue trying to get Jerry Jones to share his money with Green Bay, Snyder to share his with New Orleans? There would be more owners, greedier owners, owners with different levels of debt to persuade. Who knows? Perhaps the Giants would have the same built-in advantages as the Yankees. Perhaps the Packers would be limited by their market as severely as, say, the Expos.
This is better. When all teams make roughly the same money, and spend roughly the same, what separates them is organization and creativity.
Is there a downside? For one thing, it is harder to maintain success, and fans seem to like to have a standard of excellence around. If you beat the Yankees in baseball, you know you've done something. If you beat the 49ers? Well, it depends on what year it is.
It seems a small price, however, for hope.
Look, the NFL isn't perfect. It still tends to strong-arm communities to get stadiums built. It seems to frown on players as they smile. Franchise free-agency spirals. The image of the league is not as pristine as it would imagine.
But ask yourself: If you could own a franchise in any league, which would it be?
Say what you want about the neighborhood, but it's the place to build a house.
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