Just as NFL training camps were opening this week, the over-the-top football fan season kicked off courtesy of an anonymous video posted on YouTube. The online presentation by "BrownsFan4Life" features a man in a Cleveland Browns jersey using Art Modell's grave for something normally reserved for halftime, or at least the men's room.
The Modell family was offended, as they have every right to be. And it would be more than worth the Baltimore County Police Department's efforts if the perpetrator of what David Modell termed a "vile, piggish act of online cowardice" were caught and prosecuted. Thankfully, even in Cleveland such revenge urination seems to have been met with disdain. When a poster on the Dawg Pound Nation Facebook page called it "ridiculous," his comment immediately received 13 "likes" and no counter argument from his fellow Browns fans.
Mr. Modell's decision to move the Browns to Baltimore in 1995 made him an unpopular figure there, but he's hardly a war criminal. We would lambaste the Ohio city more for the behavior of its fan base if we didn't worry that tests might reveal traces of Old Bay, Natty Boh and Charm City human DNA at the grave of former Colts owner Robert Irsay, who passed away in 1997, 13 years after moving the team from Baltimore to Indianapolis.
This might seem like a onetime act of vandalism hardly worthy of public attention except it fits something of a pattern — the manner in which football teams, leagues, schools and their fans take their sport far too seriously. We've seen too much recently, including the failure to properly address concussions and serious head injuries that arise from football to the allocations of billions in taxpayer dollars to subsidize the highly profitable sport and the acceptance of criminal behavior by top athletes.
Earlier this week, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law legislation prohibiting middle and high school football teams from practicing full-contact more than twice a week for 90 minutes during the preseason and regular season and not at all during the off-season. It's an entirely sensible reaction to the rise of concussions on the playing field, but so far, readers of the Sacramento Bee have opposed it by a 3-to-1 margin in the newspaper's online poll.
Rare is the NFL team that doesn't include players who have been arrested, most frequently for driving under the influence, drug possession or assault. The Ravens are currently leading the league in off-season arrests with five, most recently involving cornerback Jimmy Smith who was charged with disorderly conduct after an incident at a Towson restaurant and bar last week. Yet few NFL players are shown the door for criminal behavior unless perhaps they are alleged to be a first-degree murderer like former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Meanwhile, many fans of the NFL franchise in Washington, D.C. are standing behind owner Daniel Snyder's decision not to change a name a growing number of Americans — and not just Native Americans — believe to be racist. Those who find it offensive include 50 U.S. Senators and a woman named Jordan Wright, granddaughter of original Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall. And this week, former coach Tony Dungy was trying to explain away his remarks that he would not have wanted openly gay linebacker Michael Sam on his team for fear that his presence would create a distraction — an eerie echo of the justifications made for opposing Jackie Robinson's integration of Major League Baseball. And this from a man who publicly advocated for quarterback Michael Vick's return to the NFL after he went to prison on dog fighting charges.
In other words, the football community accepts racism, homophobia, criminal arrests, serious injury and outlandish fan behavior completely in stride. None of it is shocking because we've come to see the sport as something of a juggernaut in this country, so popular that common sense, good judgment and reason are left on the sideline.
And that's not even mentioning perhaps the most glaring problem of all — the way NCAA Division I college football players are abused by the system, generating millions of dollars in revenue for schools but worked like indentured servants. Only recently have there been signs that the NCAA is recognizing how outrageous the current system has become.
Listen, there is no shortage of affection for the Ravens in the offices of this newspaper. But there is also such a thing as going too far — both in the management of amateur and professional teams and the loyalty shown such institutions by their fans. Perhaps it's time we sat back and repeatedly reminded ourselves that it's only a game, it's only a game, it's only a game. Sometimes when the going gets tough, it's time to keep a proper perspective on life beyond the gridiron — or the graveyard.
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