NFL off-field woes tainting Super Bowl?

Story highlights

  • Super Bowl this Sunday takes place against backdrop of controversy
  • Mike Downey: Just play the damn game!

Mike Downey is a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune who contributes frequently to CNN. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)So, are the Super Bowl's two head coaches a couple of caught-red-handed cheaters? Is Seattle's top running back a tight-lipped, lewd lout? Is a standout Seahawk defensive back a big-mouthed braggart? Is the superstar Patriot quarterback a dishonest dude or a scatterbrain? And what about that former New England pass catcher who's been charged with cold-blooded murder? Let's not forget about him.

Ah, welcome to Super Bowl week, during which we will hear countless hours of well-deserved blah-blah-blah praise about the skills of the participants, while simultaneously wondering about the gentlemen in charge on each sideline, or about the true personality that lies hidden behind each player's face mask.
Are these men to admire? Do we need them to be?
    Many of us on Sunday will merely want to eat our Buffalo wings, watch the Budweiser horses and puppies in the TV commercials and see what Katy Perry is or isn't wearing when she sings at halftime, then get back to the game to decide if Seattle or New England will be "world champions" (even though teams from the rest of the world are not invited).
    But this year, more than any past year, it seems, the National Football League is coming under scrutiny more for the kind of product it is producing OFF the field of play. The physical abuse of women or children by some players has made headlines. As has this latest focus of attention, a brouhaha over whether New England quarterback Tom Brady — deliberately or otherwise — used a "deflated" football in a conference championship game that was allegedly much easier to pass and catch than the opposing team's ball.
    The image problem of the NFL as a league of thugs and punks won't be helped by the publicity surrounding the case of 25-year-old Aaron Hernandez, once a tight end for the Patriots, which goes to trial this week. Hernandez is accused of the 2013 murder of a semi-pro football player named Odin Lloyd.
    And you could feel the league's executives cringe when the entire focus of a January 18 game between the Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts turned out to be not which side would be proceeding to the Super Bowl, but whether the winners somehow managed to use a football that was not properly inflated.
    It didn't help that Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has denied knowing anything about the deflated balls, has previously had to answer to accusations of unethically "spying" on another team. Belichick was fined $500,000 by the NFL in 2007 after it became clear that the Patriots had filmed the New York Jets' defensive signals. It was the largest such fine in the league's history, and the team itself got slapped with an additional $250,000 penalty.
    But for those who think Belichick a sinner and Seattle's coach a saint, keep in mind that Pete Carroll, coach of the Seahawks, was in charge of a University of Southern California program that was handed a two-year bowl ban among other sanctions for alleged wrongdoing, including, AP noted, "improper benefits to Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush." Carroll left for the NFL while others remained behind, paying for what occurred at USC under his watch.
    Meanwhile, Carroll's current team has been stoking the Patriots controversy, with outspoken defensive back Richard Sherman seeming to insinuate that the NFL's commissioner and Patriots' owner were so buddy-buddy the Pats would go unpunished. And his teammate, Marshawn Lynch, has reportedly been fined twice this season already for making lewd gestures while celebrating a touchdown. What he might pull on Sunday is now anybody's guess.
    Fools and clowns have been omnipresent at NFL games for years, most of them receivers. What began innocently enough many decades ago, when a New York Giants receiver, Homer Jones, "spiked" the football after a touchdown pass, has snowballed into a succession of look-at-me acts.
    There was Terrell Owens pulling a Sharpie out of his sock after a touchdown and autographing the ball (for which he reportedly received a $20,000 fine), Joe Horn hiding a mobile phone behind a goal post and pretending to make a call on it ($30,000 fine), and Chad Johnson doing a Riverdance, pretending to propose to a cheerleader, donning a jacket implying he was bound for the Hall of Fame, and even holding up a sign reading "Dear NFL, PLEASE don't fine me AGAIN!!!!!" (for which he earned another $10,000 fine).
    There's been plenty more: Golden Tate waved goodbye to opponents as he ran to the end zone, Wes Welker made a snow angel, Randy Moss pretended to moon another team's fans, and Tony Gonzalez and others "dunked" the ball over the goal-post crossbar after touchdowns. The New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham may have gotten the dunk banned when he almost brought the crossbar down doing it one game.
    TV sportscaster Bob Costas got so sick of it, he once aired a commentary deriding football's "mindless exhibitionism" and "buffoonery," saying there's a difference between genuine enthusiasm and what Costas called "calculated displays of obnoxious self-indulgence."
    "No Fun League" is a tag the NFL acquired after attempting to limit some of its athletes' outlandish acts. But as we can see from recent events, "no fun" is the least of the league's worries. Just play the damn game, you guys, would you, please?