Q: Have you been here to Yale before?
A: Yeah, my daughter is a graduate of Yale, Class of 1994, so we have been here many times for parents’ events as well as a number of other occasions such as the Walter Camp dinner. Plus, going back to high school, I came here to attend football games because one of the star halfbacks at Yale at the time, Dennis McGill, was from my high school and a close family friend. So starting around 1957, I started making weekly treks to Yale during the fall to watch football games. Then I was recruited to come here and play basketball the following year. But in one of the few bad decisions I’ve made in my life, I ended up going to Georgetown.
Q: Different teams compete in the Super Bowl every year. Teams that may perform very poorly one year will make the playoffs the next year, whereas in Major League Baseball the same teams seem to be in the playoffs year in and year out. What do you attribute this parity to, and do you think this could be transposed to other leagues that have so many perennially unsuccessful teams?
A: I think the strength of our competition goes to the structure of the league, which is very unique. We are the only league which shares all of the national television revenue evenly among all the teams and that, I think, is the most important point in terms of revenue and resources that allows teams to compete. Another big element of it is the control of television centrally by the league, which guarantees that all teams are on network television and creates opportunities for players in every one of the league’s cities to have exposure, even if they’re on an unsuccessful team. The third big part of it is our collective bargaining agreement: the balance between free agency on one hand and the salary cap on the other. So there are a lot of structural elements. Some are truly unique, like the sharing of revenue, [whereas] others such as the salary cap, the [National Basketball Association] has. Neither baseball nor hockey has that kind of revenue sharing or that kind of collective bargaining agreement. I think the aggregate of those things is what makes the difference.
Q: Do you think that the publicity surrounding this year’s Super Bowl — including the attention on more negative things that occurred in the past year — will end up having a positive effect on the league’s image in the long run, or was this season not one of the NFL’s finest moments?
A: Well, the game could have been more competitive. We had a very competitive season, then [the] Baltimore [Ravens] dominated in the Super Bowl. But I think the off-field attention on Ray Lewis and some other players is to be expected. It’s part of society’s concern about good conduct and misconduct. I don’t think it distracted the players from the game, I don’t think it detracts from the game itself. It may put some pressure on the athletes who were being subjected to the scrutiny by the public, but that’s part of one’s obligation and responsibility as a professional athlete — not only to behave well but to be scrutinized when the public perception is that you haven’t behaved well.
Q: In a league where you have thousands of players, do you think it’s unfair that the media focuses on one or two so-called “bad apples” — including Ray Lewis, as you mentioned, and of course Rae Carruth, when obviously there are good things going on within the NFL as well?
A: I think probably the unwarranted thing is the rush to judgment and the failure to recognize that, at least in some quarters in our society, people are considered innocent until proven guilty. When you have a trial such as the one Mark Chmura just went through, the verdict is entitled to respect. The process was very thorough and people are not guilty just because accusations are made, either by an individual or through the prosecutorial system. That, in many ways, is the most damaging aspect of some of the pre-trial publicity that these players get. You would like to see more attention on the mature players and the players who recognize their obligation to their former university or to the organization that supports them. But that’s a reality of journalism, and not just currently but going back over a hundred years in America, that the sensational and the celebrity sometimes get more ink than the routine and customary.
Q: Have you felt it necessary as a league to take any steps to either initiate new programs that shed positive light on the players or at least promote old programs that are more positive?
A: Yes, we have had many programs in place for a decade or more. Throughout the ’90s we have become much more proactive and have tried to support all players and recognize the challenges they are facing when they come into the league. For one thing, in many cases the athletes come from working-class or low-income environments to a level of wealth and celebrity they could not possibly anticipate. Secondly, they come to have media exposure and public expectations that most of them could not possibly have anticipated five or six years earlier, which is a relatively short period in the life of a young adult. So we’ve tried to recognize that we need to have programs of every kind — advice as to where you should live, college degree completion, psychological counseling, family assistance of all types — which most corporations are doing now for their employees, but ours is targeted at the unique challenges of our players.
Q: We’ve seen a noticeable trend in all four major sports — especially basketball, but even yours — of players leaving college early and entering the pro world without spending a full four years in college to grow both physically and emotionally. The example that comes immediately to mind is Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick. Do you think the importance of these support programs is heightened by the fact that you have more and more college sophomores and juniors entering your league who might not be as ready for it as fourth- or fifth-year seniors?
A: I think that those players face some special challenges when they come in early. Under our rules, a player generally can’t come into the NFL as a sophomore because we require a player to have a three-year hiatus between completion of high school and eligibility for coming into the NFL. But yes, when someone is 20 or 21 years old and has perhaps not even completed the process of growing into the demands of a campus life away from home, then comes into some really tough professional challenges on the field and celebrity challenges off the field, that does require some more support. It’s for that reason that we have institutionalized support, not just at the league level but at the team level. Every team has a full-time person dedicated to player support programs, and then they also have psychologists and other counselors. But the age of the players is definitely a factor.
Q: We’ve seen the late ’90s as a period of expansion for your league, with many teams being created like the Cleveland Browns, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and this upcoming season the Houston Texans. What do you see for your league in the next 10 years? What do you think we’ll remember the NFL for in the first decade of the 21st century?
A: Well, I think the newest thing — and the most distinctive thing — will be the digital and telecommunications revolution. Part of it will be the Internet, but other new media will be emerging. The fans’ access to the athletes and to the teams of the league through interactive electronic media will be very novel and I think that will be the distinctive thing of the next decade. Our challenge is to make sure that the game remains as competitive as it is, and to keep in place some of the structures we talked about earlier, such as collective bargaining, in place so that everything begins and ends with the competitiveness on the field. But I think new media will be the single most distinctive new face of pro sports in the next decade.