BY Art Thiel 03:47PM 12/27/2012

Thiel: Sherman episode another blow to NFL

Seahawks and fans are delighted that Sherman will play, but the fact that the drug-test failure was a story prior to resolution is another mark against a sloppily run NFL in 2012.

It’s been a bad year for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. / Wiki Commons

Good year for the Seahawks. Bad year for the NFL.

The reversal upon appeal Thursday of Seahawks CB Richard Sherman’s positive drug test is another setback for the NFL in the conduct of its business affairs, which is separate from the deaths in the murder-suicide of Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher and the intoxication manslaughter charge of a teammate and friend Jerry Brown against the Cowboys Jason Brent.

The tragedies are random, coincidental and more heartbreaking. The business mess-ups are bewildering, more connected and aggravating. Sherman’s drug test reversal, and more importantly, the case’s disclosure before conclusion, following the “Bountygate” bungle with the New Orleans Saints and the replacement-referee debacle, add up to something resembling North Korea’s rocket program instead of the formidable, steel-cold efficiency of America’s most popular sports enterprise.

Make no mistake — attendance and TV ratings show the game is more popular than ever. Football fans, much like citizens with their U.S. government, will continue to believe far past the expiration date on credibility.

The NFL and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, have taken some serious shots in 2012. It’s hard to envision them collectively as threats to the empire — that is the province of the ever-increasing litigation brought by ex-players over alleged decades-long neglect of health and safety issues —  but I never imagined the NFL looking like it was being run from the rusty flatbed of a 1940 Dodge pickup truck.

In Seattle, Sherman’s successful appeal was understandably greeted with joy by Seahawks’ players coaches and fans because it keeps a premier player playing. But since the problem, according to Sherman, was a failure of specimen custody, it doesn’t necessarily resolve the issue of whether Sherman used a banned stimulant, as the NFL was reported to have claimed he and teammate Brandon Browner did.

Outcome aside, the bigger problem was that the story, pardon the pun, leaked. By collectively bargained agreement with the union, the NFL is prohibited from disclosing suspensions until after appeals are heard and upheld or denied. For good reason — all parties want to avoid the mess-up that happened in Seattle. Or at least they should. Yet someone in the know told the NFL’s broadcast partner,, about the tandem’s positive tests and imminent punishment before appeals were completed.

The story hung over the team for a month. Obviously, the Seahawks defense managed it well on the field, allowing 30 points in the three games of Browner’s absence. But Sherman’s reputation took a hit, as did the Seahawks’, with three players having been busted this year, one incorrectly.

Who knows what happened? Since no party in the NFL drug-testing saga is obligated to be publicly accountable, it’s open season on the truth. Sherman and all players and agents can say what they want without fear of public contradiction, and the league is required to remain mum.

The only insight we receive is by reading tweets Christmas morning, when this present was found from Sherman under the cyber tree:

“Hoping we play in a just League @nfl. Not a league that allows a tester to mix urine samples. A tester with a history of errors. Has had to have 6 other tests thrown out and he has only been testing 6 months.”

Really? If that’s true, who else has been tested by this guy? What has the league done about it? What kind of training are the testers given? Why isn’t an independent agency given custody whose procedures are open to review?

As long as the NFL continues to charge the public for admission to its games, any protocol that denies the public playing time for its players needs to be transparent.  Otherwise, the conspiracy theorists among us may surmise that, say, someone in the 49ers organization may have come by secret information that could be used to disrupt an opponent.

No sports league wants public discussion to go to the heart of its integrity, does it?

Yet that is exactly what happened not only with Sherman’s faulty test, but with “Bountygate,” as well as the replacement refs. The circumstances are different, but the impacts were the same: Decisions made by team coaches/executives/owners beyond the reach of the rules influenced outcomes.

You know who that really irks? Operators of the legal and illegal gambling industry, upon which much of the NFL’s popularity depends. These guys are counting on the NFL to run a tidy ship, and when it doesn’t, a lot of money shifts hands unexpectedly for no good football reason (See: Seahawks 14, Packers 12, Sept. 24).

Not saying that Goodell wound up with a horse’s head in his bed the next morning, but the labor dispute that produced the owner-approved, replacement-refs idea, was abruptly settled when the owners realized that taking the public AND the bookies for dopes was hubris uncommon and unwise even for them.

Regarding the punishments for the bounty system among Saints players, coaches and executives that drew severe suspensions from Goodell, he was forced to bring back his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, to arbitrate the players’ appeals. Somewhat surprisingly, Tagliabue ruled that suspensions were unwarranted because players were operating under club dictates that could be seen as a form of management coercion.

For anyone who has had a father called in to fix something valuable that wasn’t broken when he left you alone with it, well, the mortification for Goodell was gravy-thick. Bad scene for the NFL.

Maybe these missteps are of small concern to the Seahawks fan flush with playoff adrenaline. But since the Seahawks were central players in the drug-testing fiasco and the resolution of the referees’ labor dispute, it seems worthwhile to raise questions of the ship’s captain as to whether he takes icebergs seriously, or merely prefers to have the band play louder.


  • Will

    The NFL seems to want to run their business much as big corporation do business – with their own rules, with their own powerful lobbyists, bushels of special interest partnerships, control of PR and news about themselves … and they definitely want control over their employees.

    The fun part, football players aren’t exactly button-downed Forbes 500 types. NFL players are tough guys with character … they can be rascals, rogues or good guys – but they are also individualists with ego and drive, wanting everything from more money to glory … Goodell seems to have lost in his efforts to pound the players into his version of corporate yes men.

    • art thiel

      Darn players always are spoiling monopoly operations. Can’t wait until an independent-minded college football player meets a smart lawyer who’s made his money. The NCAA will go pfft.

    • Hawkman54

      Very good analogy

  • Love the titanic reference Art. Always entertaining

    • art thiel

      Thanks, please tell your friends.

  • Good point. Do you think this is going to be the second asterisk to any success the Seahwaks achieve this year?

    • art thiel

      Hope so. Think of it this way: For the first time, a Seattle sports team will wear the black hat nationally. Cool!

  • Big

    Everytime I see those NFL owners in their boxes with dress shirts, ties and jackets on game day I want to throw up. Now a 1940’s Dodge pickup truck painted blue (blue) and called Ole Blue now that would be a great mascot for the Hawks. Have that baby prowling the side lines!

    • art thiel

      Big, shall we tighten our jeans, slick our hair, and roll up a pack of cigs in our t-shirt sleeves?

      • Big

        Art, roll the 501’s into a 2″ cuff, Brylcream the hair and wear a tight white t-shirt and the rat tail comb is optional. Oh, don’t forget the white socks. Smoke Lucky Strikes or Camels and don’t wuss out, man.

        • art thiel

          Will bring a six pack of Olympia brews.

    • rocky

      They’re not called “suits” for nothing… besides, there has to be a dress shirt to stuff…

  • Vinnie

    Very disturbing that PEDs continue to play a role in pro sports, and are in the Seahawks’ dressing room. Procedural victory only for Sherman, who is undoubtedly using. Doesn’t make me feel good about the Hawks’ current run…

    • whoKarez

      ” Procedural victory only for Sherman, who is undoubtedly using.” Are you saying that he is still using? Assuming that he WAS using prior to his P-test, and assuming he quit using after getting caught, his play has improved in the last few weeks. Wouldn’t you agree that adderall doesn’t really improve your game? And if so, why use?

      • art thiel

        Adderall is a stimulant that millions use to keep alert at school or work. Nearly the worst thing an NFL player can do is fall asleep during a meeting.

    • Brett

      Good thing you weren’t the judge that heard Sherman’s appeal. I guess innocent until proven guilty is still a foreign concept to some.

      • art thiel

        Cynicism is on of the most insidious threats to sports.

    • art thiel

      I can’t say anything with “undoubtedly” in this case, Vinnie. The real issue in NFL locker rooms is HGH, for which the NFL does not yet test.

  • rocky

    These aren’t the only things on Goodell – he seems half-hearted on concussion prevention, which could sink the league if it isn’t successful, when he at the same time plumps for an 18-game season and expanded playoffs. Pure $hort-term greed. History shows that when greed gets excessive, the golden goose dies. Could happen to the NFL… like the frog in the heating water, it doesn’t realize that it’s diluting its product to the tipping point – games almost every day of the week, games in London for crying out loud, with all the jetlag disruption that entails? It’s insanity. And will lead to “so what” yawns eventually…

    • art thiel

      Great points, Rocky. Lots of hypocrisy going on here with the 18-game stuff. Author Malcolm Gladwell forecasts that the NFL in 20 years will occupy the same margins as boxing in our sports culture. Not sure I agree, but I understand the possibility.

  • bigyaz

    Lance Armstrong beat all kinds of drug tests, claimed procedural errors in testing, etc.

    Don’t give Sherman an automatic pass just because he’s “our guy.” Would you be so ready to believe him if he were a 49er?

    • Bob

      What if Schefter’s source didn’t break league rules by leaking this to the press before the appeals process was completed? It doesn’t matter anyway. In the eyes of the NFL he’s innocent.

      • art thiel

        To me, that’s the big violation here. And for all we know, it could have been Sherman’s agent who breached in order to get their claims out ahead of the appeal.

    • art thiel

      That’s the stigma that will never be resolved by the reversal. Sherman can deny use without fear of contradiction, because the NFL is prohibited from saying anything about the case. Which is to the point of the column — the NFL and the union agreed to a procedure that has problems, especially if someone violates protocol by leaking the news (leak jokes now old).

  • Unrelated, but here in Baltimore I don’t get too much news on the Hawks-did Chancellor get fined for his hit on VD?

    • Nope. The word on the street is that everyone is calling it a clean hit. The flag was for “hitting a defenseless receiver.” As Kam Chancellor explained in a tweet, “Stevie Wonder seen…” that is was a clean hit.

      • art thiel

        No fine. But as defined by the “defenseless receiver” rule, the call was legit. Chancellor and every Seahawks fan would disagree, but the NFL, with owners’ blessings, is reshaping the rulebook because of pending litigation.

        • I’m glad there was no fine, but VD certainly appeared defenseless to me on that hit! Its a bad situation for these DB’s, you could see later Kam passes on a hit and the receiver makes another few yards as a result. Also, the Wilson first down where he puts the ball out as he runs past the marker, you can see the SF DB pull up; his choice was to flatten the QB out of bounds or let him get the first down. Not really what we are looking for from defenses.

      • Thanks!

    • art thiel

      See below.

  • Art, I’ve been reading you for years. Always enjoyable. PEDs are a regrettable part of sports that just won’t go away. My suggestion – which I’ve believed for years would end the practice – is one warning and done. Whether your first bust is in HIgh School, College or the Pros, you get one warning. The second bust means you’re out of the sport at all levels – forever. It would require a degree of honor among thieves that would be difficult to obtain, but it would surely reduce the demand.

    • art thiel

      The high school thing would be a tough rap, because while a lot of kids by then are wise in the ways, some are not. And the two-and-done aspect is pretty harsh if you don’t have the money Sherman has to hire lawyers to prove a protocol breach. Unfortunately, there are no perfect strategies for human imperfection.

      And thank for the kind words.

  • osoviejo

    Art, is there an ethics question that merits exploration here? Adam Schefter exposed information on a confidential process intended to protect players from unfair and premature condemnation. In so doing, he permanently damaged the reputation of Sherman.

    I’m interested in your thoughts on this subject.

    • art thiel

      Schefter reported news that turned out factual, fair and without apparent malice. So there is no libel issue. As to ethics, that’s harder to say. Someone with access to confidential information decided to publicize it, but motives are unclear. Was it an attempt to damage Sherman or the Seahawks? Or was it an attempt by Sherman’s agent to get out ahead of the story because he knew the test had been faulty? Did Schefter get used, and was he aware?

      The tactic of undisclosed sources has been used for many years in journalism on far more important things. It is often the only way to get important truths to the public. But it always comes with risks regarding credibility and purpose. I would hope Adam cleared it with an editor, disclosing his sources, before publishing.

      • osoviejo

        The use of undisclosed sources doesn’t seem relevant in this case, since there’s no dispute that the source was correct. What’s concerning is using that information in disregard for a confidential process intended to protect the player from premature and unfair public judgement.

        I wonder if Schefter even considered the possible damage to Sherman, and given the outcome in this case, will he will expose another PED-suspended player before the confidential appeals process is completed?

        The interested public knows the process is intended to be confidential until the appeal (if any) is denied, and the public isn’t exactly clamoring for transparency–so I don’t see this as a “serving the public interest” issue.

        In any case, thanks as always for your thoughts Art.

        • Hawkman54

          Like your Thinking here.

  • Mr. Earl

    Football fans, much like citizens with their U.S. government, will
    continue to believe far past the expiration date on credibility.

    Thank you for another great Art Thiel line. Happy New Year Sportspressnw!

  • Hawkman54

    Reading this just made me weep ( inside- HA HA) continually thinking of my DAMN newspaper I don’t receive anymore! Won’t waste my dollars on the Times anymore for they appear to have gone off the deep end.
    Have to say Art that I am extremely impressed and actually joyful to read such a quality written piece. Thank You