Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 14, 2021

The Best, And The Worst, Of The NFL

It has been more than half a century since Sam Huff suited up for a National Football League game, so it’s not surprising that news of his passing on Saturday was of interest only to fans of a certain age.  But for more than a decade, from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, a time when the NFL was rapidly rising in popularity and beginning to challenge baseball for the first allegiance of American sports fans, Huff was one of the leading faces of the game.  As a middle linebacker – a case can be made that the position was invented for him – Huff was at the center of defensive action in an age when football was far less reliant on the air game than is now the case.

First for the New York Giants, then for Washington, Huff did battle with the leading running backs of his era, including Cleveland’s Jim Brown and Green Bay’s Jim Taylor, but he could also drop back into pass coverage, pulling in thirty interceptions during his career.  He helped the Giants win a title in his rookie season and played in five more NFL championship games during eight years in New York, where capacity crowds at Yankee Stadium originated the now familiar chant of “dee-fense, dee-fense” when Huff and his teammates took the field.  Traded to Washington after the 1963 season when the Giants’ front office decided to remake its roster with younger players, Huff quickly became a fan favorite in the nation’s capital.  Long before players were mic’d up for ESPN or the NFL Network – for that matter, long before there was an ESPN or NFL Network – Walter Cronkite narrated a CBS special on Huff which allowed viewers to hear him on the field in practices and an exhibition game, helping to bring the sport closer to its growing fan base.  When Time magazine ran a major story on the rise of the NFL in November 1959, the edition’s cover photo was a portrait of Huff.

Still, it is likely that younger fans, especially in D.C., think of Huff only in his post-playing days role as a broadcaster.  For nearly four decades he teamed with former quarterback Sonny Jurgensen to provide color commentary of Washington’s games.  While the franchise suffered through plenty of lean years, the pair were together for all three of the team’s Super Bowl winning seasons.  

Several reports on Huff’s death referenced his acceptance speech when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982.  Speaking of the prototypical NFL player, Huff said, “He may not be an All-American, but he is an example of the American way.  He is judged not for his race, nor for his social standing, or not for his finances, but by the democratic yardstick of how well he blocks, tackles and sacrifices individual glory for the overall success of his team.”

Huff could only speak from his own experience, of course, and it should be noted that others have less idealistic memories of that era.  Until just two years before Huff arrived in Washington, every member of that team’s roster was effectively judged by his race because owner George Preston Marshall refused to sign any player who was not white.  He relented only under threat of losing his lease on the federally owned D.C. Stadium.

Yet even if his recollection of the NFL was unrealistic, the picture Huff painted of that time stands in stark contrast to what fans and sportswriters assume is the portrait that emerged from the league’s recent investigation into the Washington Football Team’s workplace culture.  The key word in that sentence is “assume,” because except for emails from former Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden, none of the evidence uncovered during that investigation has been made public.  As fans know, Gruden’s misogynistic and homophobic language in several messages leaked to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, and his use of a racist trope to describe Players Association head DeMaurice Smith in another, led to his resignation last month.

Gruden has now filed suit against the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell, claiming that his emails, the only ones of more than 650,000 messages reviewed during the Washington investigation that have so far seen the light of day, were purposely leaked in a concerted effort to force him out of the league.

Anyone looking for a sympathetic word toward Jon Gruden can move along to some other blog, but the NFL’s handling of its investigation into Daniel Snyder’s football franchise brings to mind the old saw that the coverup is always worse than the crime.  However noxious the environment may have been in Washington, the league’s decision to order the law firm it hired to deliver the report on its investigation orally rather than in writing, and its refusal to release any related evidence including that jaw-dropping number of 650,000 emails – minus a few of Gruden’s – leaves one free to imagine the absolute worst about attorney Beth Wilkinson’s findings.  The NFL’s refusal to budge from that position, despite the Gruden situation and, of far greater relevance, requests from both congressional committees and former employees whose complaints prompted the investigation in the first place, looks very much like a group of billionaires protecting a member of their little club.

Today’s multi-billion-dollar National Football League has come a very long way from the growing sports enterprise that Sam Huff once personified.  This week fans were reminded that not all the ways in which the NFL has changed have been for the best.

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