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Ocho foiled by ‘league above players’ thinking

NFL likes marketable players, but only to a degree. Andrew Brandt

Print This December 21, 2009, 11:09 AM EST

The initial pronouncement (later rescinded) by Chad Ochocinco that he would wear the jersey number of fallen teammate Chris Henry despite strict instructions from the league not to do so is the latest example of the “me vs. we” push and pull that exists in the NFL between players and management on a weekly basis.

The NFL has become the most successful sports venture in history, in large part because it’s built around a league-first mentality of all for one and one for all. The league’s mantra is that the power of the shield (the NFL logo) is paramount and supersedes the brand of any other team, and certainly any other player. Indeed, the strength of the league is derived from the collective spirit of teams sharing the most revenues of any major sports league (ironically, some of that collective spirit is in debate among certain owners in revenue-sharing discussions).

However, the “league above team above players” mentality tends to get a bit messy with characters such as the Bengals’ Ochocinco. He and many others like him are brands unto themselves, trying to market themselves in unique and interesting ways that don’t necessarily mesh with that of the league office. Whether it involves clever/silly/harebrained antics after scoring a touchdown, running his own news and information network, racing a horse or the more sentimental wearing of a deceased friend’s jersey, Chad is often more about Chad than he is about the Bengals or the NFL.

The irony, however, is that while Chad is building his own brand, he is also marketing the brand of the Bengals and the league. Players like Ocho and Terrell Owens are like accidents on the side of the road: We don’t want to look, but we can’t help ourselves. While we may rail about their self-serving and attention-seeking behavior – which I have often done – we want to see that behavior. How many of us feel disappointed when we see a highlight of one of these players scoring a touchdown that’s not followed by an entertaining dance or celebration?

This is the contradiction of “look-at-me” players like Ochocinco and many others. While team and league officials shake their heads at his antics, they – in their private moments – are happy that these players are on their rosters, bringing attention and the interest of casual fans to their product. Certainly, when Bengals officials socialize with their friends, do you think the subject is about blocking schemes? It’s probably often about Chad and either “Did you see what he did?” or “What do you think he’ll do next?”

An area that will continue to be at the forefront of player individuality vs. the collective good of the league is Twitter. The NFL instituted a Twitter policy prior to the season, but it’s directed at competitive issues such as tweeting before, during and immediately after games. The league – perhaps on the advice of counsel -- does not legislate how a player expresses himself to his legions of followers. We will probably continue to see players’ individual remarks/comments/observations bump up against the league’s interest in muting some expression.

As a league and a collective business, the NFL wants players to care more about the name of the team than the name (or number) on the back of the jersey. The NFL has been successful having uniformity in everything, especially in uniforms, fining for shoe color to sock length to untucked jerseys (Denver’s Brandon Marshall will likely also face a fine for wearing Henry’s number and jersey during warm-ups). However, the league wants some individuality as well as individuals marketing the league, especially individuals like Ochocinco, or for last week, Quince (15 for Chris Henry’s number).

The other interested party in this is the NFL Players Association. It took an unworkable yet popular stance with Ochocino, publicly offering to pay any fine from the league. Although it turned out to be unnecessary, it was about more than Ochocinco.

The union used Ocho’s idea to take a little dig at the league and support their well-known constituent in a sympathetic cause -- but also to take a dig at an adversary that’s stonewalling them in bargaining and taking an unpopular stance with the Henry situation.

The union may have wanted to think that one through, however. It does not want to create a slippery slope in trying to help Ochocinco. There were two other players who died earlier this year in a boating tragedy, Corey Smith of the Detroit Lions and Marquis Cooper of the Oakland Raiders. What if a player or players from those teams wanted to do something similar without the consent of the team or league? Would the union pay those fines? What will its position be on similar tragedies in the future? What if a teammate wants to honor a popular teammate who was released for what the union believes to be unjust reasons? The NFLPA may have good intentions here, but it certainly has to be careful.

The Ochocinco episode is the most recent example of the tense and tenuous relationship between the players and the NFL, which wants them to be marketable commodities yet not too individualistic in their expression. Ochocinco is fun to watch, but he upsets the natural order of sameness the league desires.

Other notes from the weekend:

Guess who threw the winning pass in the Raiders-Broncos game Sunday? Maybe he read the column...

Wonder if the next contract breakdown of someone who appears to be vastly overpaid should be the one done less than two months ago for Chicago’s Jay Cutler…

Is there any more inane commercial than the Bud Light infomercial with the condiment shooter? Please have some respect for us as viewers…

Follow me on Twitter: adbrandt

For a look at the crowded AFC wild-card race, check out this article from Bleacher Report.

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