The National Football League rolled out its 100th season on Thursday night with lots of tributes to gridiron heroes of the past and present — images ranging from grainy to high definition.
This is America's sport and America's obsession, and it's supposed to represent America — grit and discipline and teamwork and all of that. It makes boys into men, or so they say.
A truer statement on the NFL arrived Friday. Over the course of the day, the league reaffirmed the bottomline, excuse-driven, talent-and-hope-trumps-everything ethos that this league — and this country — is really about.
Antonio Brown returned to the Oakland Raiders one day after allegedly calling his general manager a racial slur, threatening to beat him up and then punting a football away while daring the GM to fine him some more. All of which came after a slew of other nonsense.
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"Antonio's back today," coach Jon Gruden said. "We're really excited about that. We're ready to move on. He's had a lot of, obviously, time to think about things and we're happy to have him back and I know Raider Nation is happy about that too."
Yep, that's it.
Gruden's right, though. Brown definitely had some time to think … about how that $30 million guaranteed contract he signed this year wasn't actually guaranteed and could be made null and void. If that doesn't make someone deliver a teary-eyed apology, then little will.
So all was good in Oakland … and may still be even after Brown released a two-minute, heavily produced video that included a taped phone conversation between Brown and Gruden discussing his disciplinary issues.
Of course Brown did. And of course the Raiders are probably going to be fine with it. Brown is too good for Oakland not to be fine with it. That's the NFL.
Prior to Brown coming back, the Kansas City Chiefs announced they had reached a contract extension with Tyreek Hill that could be worth $54 million ($35.2 million guaranteed). This after an offseason during which Hill was accused of beating his son by the son's mother, whom he had previously pleaded guilty to physically abusing in a 2015 domestic-violence case.
Because prosecutors didn't have enough to charge Hill with any crime, and the NFL couldn't figure out how to suspend him, the wide receiver was rewarded with a nice, new deal. Hill even picked up a $5.8 million signing bonus.
"We're pleased we were able to reach an agreement with Tyreek to keep him in a Chiefs uniform for the foreseeable future," Kansas City general manager Brett Veach said in a statement.
Veach went on to state that the extension is "contingent upon the conditions Tyreek agreed to adhere to upon his return to the team in July."
Really, though, there are no conditions, unless you count avoiding incarceration and continuing to be a game-breaking talent. If Hill can do that, nothing is going to keep him out of uniform, either in K.C. or somewhere else.
This is the beauty of the beast of the NFL, a window into a cutthroat, zero-sum competition.
There is only one thing that matters in the NFL: Does your talent outweigh your issues? If it does, you're good. If not, you're cut.
It's a sliding scale. You can't just be a little bit better than your replacement. You need to be enough better that the Chiefs will pretend Hill wasn't accused of punching a 3-year-old in the chest, or Brown didn't threaten to whip 61-year-old Mike Mayock, who is, ostensibly, his boss.
If it were closer — if these weren't two of the best receivers in the league — then they'd be gone. It's why some players can kneel for the anthem and others can't. You deliver or you don't. If you are going to be average, you better be a company man.
The world of football will pretend otherwise. Coaches will bark about seeking out chemistry and culture, they'll pen books about leadership and values, they'll preach about a moral high road that must be adhered to. All of that's junk and almost always has been.
Last season’s Super Bowl MVP, Julian Edelman, missed the first four games of the season due to a PED suspension. In the end, no one cared.
Brown is 31, yet his temper tantrums always get excused like he is 3. Hill is 25 but has racked up a lifetime of second chances. That's the NFL.
It's not much different elsewhere in America. Business, medicine, politics, media, religion. The most talented or productive can get away with bending or breaking the rules. The average better toe the line. The below average better know someone to stay employed, no matter how nice or conscientious they are.
In the data-driven, metrics-for-everything modern world, that’s increasingly true.
The NFL holds a mirror up to America. This is who we are. The meek will not inherit this world. It may not be who we want to admit we are, but at the end of the day, this is it.
As long as you ignore the NFL's propaganda arm, it isn't all that surprising or upsetting. It's just football.
Of course, Antonio Brown is back. Of course, Tyreek Hill is back. The Raiders and Chiefs think they need them. Until they lose a step of speed, there really isn't much that can get them fired.
Threaten to beat up the boss? Get accused of beating up your kid?
Just win, baby. One hundred glorious years and counting.
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