The NFL's silly season has commenced, and the silliest and saddest of stories has metastasized before our eyes. 2009 Defensive Rookie of the Year Brian Cushing received a four-game suspension for the 2010 season for testing positive sometime in the past season for a banned substance.
Cushing's suspension led many to question whether the linebacker deserved his award. The Associated Press this week took the unprecedented step of holding a re-vote, and Wednesday Cushing was again voted the winner. I won't delve too deeply into the rationales offered for supporting or opposing Cushing. I want to focus more on the shambolic way the Football Writers of America and the Associated Press handled the issue.
In the immediate back and forth, sportswriters across the country are citing precedence, and some sanctity of their vote as reason for voting as they did. I have no doubts that the writers take their jobs and their votes seriously, but citing any journalistic principle is entirely besides the point.
Post season awards are public relations stunts. They exist to bring more attention to the NFL and to its performers, and indirectly, to the organizations who organize the votes and the writers who cast votes. The process of voting and the results of the votes have no effect on the game. No scores will be upset if Jarius Byrd or Clay Matthews toppled Cushing in the re-vote. The playoff field would not change one bit if writers from the NFC East locked their AFC counterparts in a basement, while rigging the voting in one player's or another's favor.
The players who win these elections don't govern the NFL. They don't negotiate TV deals. They have no power. The process itself could be as dirty as a referendum in a banana republic. As long as they spur debates among fans and maintain interest in the NFL in bars and at water coolers across America, the stunts work.
Unless the vote generates negative publicity, for the game, the players, the AP and the writers themselves. Voila! The Cushing re-vote has accomplished all these things. Cheating has seemingly been rewarded. The word steroids had been baseball and track and field's issue. Sure, no real NFL fan believed some rule bending and even rule breaking occurs, but the issue had not been waved in our faces as it had been in the Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire and Roger Clemens cases, among others. Unfortunately, the story in many places focused on the voters and not the issue of steroids. See the point/counterpoint debates here and here for examples.
The better courses of action would have involved a quiet, behind-the-scenes canvass and a re-vote which elected a new winner. This would enforce the idea that cheating would not be tolerated by the voters. Absent that, a statement refusing a re-vote on principle would have re-focused attention on doping, the integrity of the NFL's testing system and the proper punishment for violators.
The story does in fact seem headed that way. The sports journalists need to put their journalistic hats back on and put their PR hats away.
I'll close by holding my own vote. I'm handing every Cushing re-voter a Kimmie, the award I named for Terrell Owens' agent Kim Ethridge, who once called a press conference to defend her client and had to be shielded by him after calling out the Dallas P.D. If you're gonna cover the game fine, but if you're going to promote it, well, promote it.