Was yesterday the most tumultuous in-season day in recent NFL history? Sure, real world events have encroached on the NFL before, though the league is unusually skilled at grabbing the nearest American flag at those moments. Ordinarily, the NFL only really has to deal with bad news in the offseason. This is the NFL's trick: We all spend the summer listing off the league's malfeasances and claiming that we'll never watch the games again, and then the games start and we yell woooo and forget all about it. The NFL always waits us out, and we always come back. The games are its ultimate trump card. Wooooooo.
Last year, Frontline ran its devastating documentary "League of Denial," detailing in comprehensive fashion how the NFL had not only ignored its concussion crisis, but has actively attempted to cover it up. The film ran on a Tuesday, and the sports world spent two days being furious ... until the Bears beat the Giants to typically massive ratings on Thursday night and the world shrugged and moved on. For the NFL to be dealing with a significant PR disaster in-season, it usually involves something on the field. The last time the NFL felt moved to address a problem midseason in a drastic matter was the replacement referees fiasco in 2012, and they really only did it then because of Golden Tate's phantom touchdown on "Monday Night Football." On-field is what matters; that's the only thing the league feels the need to protect.
Which is why yesterday felt so seismic. You had the Ray Rice video. You had the Ravens cutting him hours later, and commissioner Roger Goodell, amusingly, then suspending him indefinitely, which is sort of like getting out of a fight by saying "you're lucky my friends are holding me back." You had the NFL facing as massive a public relations fiasco as it ever has in-season, and staggering drunkenly in response. And ... you had two live football games in prime time that very night.
Which brings us to Chris Berman.
I keep waiting for Chris Berman to have a counterintuitive, backlash-to-the-backlash we-actually-like-the-old-lug-after-all resurgence late in his career -- Dick Vitale-style -- but it hasn't happened yet. Berman remains, I'd argue, the most well-known personality on ESPN, in many ways the physical manifestation of the worst aspects of not just the network, but the broadcasting business in general. For all the guff ESPN gets -- and I've been known to toss a bit their direction myself -- this is a forward-looking media organization that is responsible for some truly amazing, revolutionary work, from "30 For 30" to Grantland to FiveThirtyEight to countless other endeavors.
Chris Berman is the opposite of all that: I wonder if he has ever even heard of Nate Silver. You could call Berman a throwback, except that would imply there was ever a time when there were dozens of Chris Bermans. He has always been uniquely himself and has never changed, as the world has whirled out of control around him. It wouldn't surprise me if he still thinks Huey Lewis and the News is the most popular band in the country, with their overwhelming sales of 33 1/3rds and cassette tapes.
Berman's schtick at this point is less schtick than a series of tics, an aging comedian still doing his gags in the Catskills. People have compared Berman to Ron Burgundy, but I prefer another Will Ferrell bit: He's Robert Goulet. "Hey, you wouldn't hire a clown to fix a leak in the john, so why you let these hooligans tear down the biz, yeahhhhh."
Once you get this thought in your brain, I promise you, you won't be able to stop thinking about it every time you listen to him. That Berman and Bob Ley are the only original ESPNers remaining is staggering: It's like learning that the only two initial performers at the Café Wha? still touring are Bob Dylan and Carrot Top. He is Chris Berman, a man born to do advertisements for Applebee's in which the entire script is just him saying "Double-Glazed Baby Back Back Back Back Ribs" over and over. He is a pitchman for whatever product you give him, because the product is always himself.
Which makes him pretty much the last person who should have been charged with being the public representative of the NFL industrial complex at the end of a day like yesterday. Mike Tirico, who handled the first of the two "Monday Night Football" games, is an old pro at this: He knows how to express "concern" without jeopardizing the NFL relationship. He can discuss the Rice situation without looking like a shill, but also not without putting any specific blame on the league itself. Tirico can do what he always does, what he is as skilled at as anyone in the industry: He can make everything sound calm and under control, like it's all going to be OK.
That is not Chris Berman's strength: Chris Berman's strength is finding players on the field named Butler so he can say, "the Butler did it." (There were two on Monday: Donald, the San Diego linebacker, and Drew, the Arizona punter. After Donald made a tackle in the third quarter, you could hear Berman give two audible plbbbts, as if he were trying to restrain himself, before finally blurting out, inevitably, "The Butler did it!") Asking Chris Berman to address the Ray Rice situation, as he surely had to do, is like handing a toddler a blowtorch. Sure, it's funny to watch him stumble and flail around for a while, but next thing you know Trent Dilfer and your drapes are engulfed in flames.
It was midway through the second quarter that Rice came up. The minute Berman began the conversation, you just waited for the groan to come. It didn't take long.
You know the news today -- Ray Rice no longer a member of the Baltimore Ravens. The continuation of what happened when a film of he and his soon-to-be wife in the elevator was seen by everybody. Waived immediately by the Ravens, suspended indefinitely by the NFL, and he probably won't play football again for good reason. And so, now there's a lot to be talked about here, as we get set for action. And the Ravens acted right away, didn't they, Trent? They had to!"
(Transcript via Doug Farrar.)
Yeah, it's the Ravens acted right away, didn't they, Trent? line that did it. This led Dilfer into a bizarre promotional plug for the Nike Grass Roots Football camp he works for, and how players have to do the right thing, and the NFL sending a stern message, and so on and what forth, as if everything was fine, as if there was no PR disaster going on in the NFL that day, that Roger Goodell is on it, that we have always been at war with Eastasia. It had nothing to do with anything, but it distracted from Ray Rice, which was the goal.
But bless Berman's heart, he just kept talking. There was something about an elevator, and hitting a woman, and NFL being leaders, and there being something larger than just football, and youth football issues, and then this fun finisher:
The NFL has a chance, not just a chance, an obligation in my mind, to help those who need help right now. We could make a list of what that means, but this is something … take a leadership role in society ... there are those who need help right now. Get involved. The message is clear to anyone playing football. The message has to go way behind "some need help" and THE PUNT IS BLOCKED!
Yeah, that was the best part: Wherever Berman was going was interrupted by the Chargers blocking a punt, and Berman completely dropped everything. Here's the Vine:
And, ultimately … maybe Chris Berman was perfect for this night after all. Because I can't think of a better metaphor for how the NFL works, and how they plan on getting through this, than a series of nonsense words having nothing to do with the topic at hand, just sounds to get through the period where no football is actually happening, and then THE PUNT IS BLOCKED! Berman never finished his point, and Rice was never brought up again. That is the plan. Just wait. Eventually: THE PUNT IS BLOCKED! Bless his heart. Wooooooo.