Thursday night, tens of thousands of fans will stream into the Metrodome on a summer night to watch an NFL exhibition game featuring players soon to be trying out for the Iowa Barnstormers.
That makes it the ideal preseason game. The only way to improve it would be to cancel it.
NFL games played in August always have been cruel jokes perpetrated on a complicit public. Now they’re worse. Now these games stand as criminal acts against fans and players.
For fans, these games are lumped into season-ticket plans. This is the sports-world version of extortion. You want to watch real games, buddy? Then you’re going to have to pay a little vig. That’s right, you’re going to have to buy tickets to games that don’t count contested mostly by players who won’t make the team. Tony Soprano would be offended by the NFL’s business practices.
For players, these games are worse. They’re evidence that a league pretending to care about players’ health doesn’t care at all. The rich ol’ NFL is happy to let star players risk their health and longevity in meaningless games because the NFL can sell tickets and broadcast rights to the games.
In Minnesota, the debate has revolved around the Vikings’ use of Adrian Peterson. In the end, the team decided to use him for two plays during the preseason, both designed to shield him from contact. Even those two plays generated too much risk.
On the first play, Peterson was asked to pass-block. On the second, he was sent into a decoy pattern, and the Vikings were lucky 49ers’ defensive end Justin Smith, a hulking mass of menace, didn’t body-slam Peterson for the fun of it.
Peterson accomplished nothing by being on the field. He could have been injured, destroying the Vikings’ season. That is a bad risk-reward ratio.
Here’s what players should be asking their league and union: If the best player in football can thrive without appearing in one preseason game, and then is asked to make only a nonviolent cameo in the next, what does that say about exhibition games? And what does it say about the players the NFL is willing to place at risk?
Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams is a borderline Hall of Fame player nearing the end of his career. He played in the third quarter of a meaningless exhibition Sunday and one the 49ers scrubs trying to impress his coaches took out Williams’ right knee.
As the coach, Leslie Frazier is responsible for placing Williams at risk. That’s all you need to know about the NFL’s persistently backward mind-set regarding player safety. Frazier is perhaps the best human being I’ve covered. He’s compassionate man. But NFL coaches think in terms of toughness and repetitions and continuity. They almost all err on the risk side of the risk-and-reward formula presented to them each summer.
Peterson shouldn’t have been on the field in the first quarter. Williams shouldn’t have been on the field in the third quarter. Nobody worth protecting should have been on the field at all.
The downside of preseason games is obvious. The upside is invisible.
Consider the three most remarkable athletic performances by major-sports stars in Minnesota in the past five years. In 2009, Joe Mauer won the American League MVP award. He missed spring training. In 2009, Brett Favre led the Vikings to the brink of the Super Bowl while turning in the most efficient season of a Hall of Fame career. He missed as much offseason workouts and training camp as possible. In 2012, Peterson rushed for 2,093 yards and won the NFL MVP Award. He did not play in the preseason.
This season, another athlete with Minnesota ties, Francisco Liriano, suffered an injury that kept him from pitching in spring training. He is having a career year.
We love to associate success in sports with hard work and team building, but great athletes are at their best when healthy and rested.
NFL players face the highest risks of any of our major-sport athletes. They shouldn’t be put at risk in games designed to wring a few extra dollars out of desperate fans.
Fans should boycott exhibition games. Veteran players should, too.