Part of the reason that the NFL is suffering negative press because of Michael Vick's involvement with a dogfighting ring is because of the place of primacy he held in the league's firmament. He was a star on the field and off the field, the owner of numerous endorsements and held up as an example for the masses. Just like O.J. Simpson his affablity and ability combined to dampen the panties of sponsors and league officials alike and both groups tripped all over themselves before each guy did something that made him toxic. You'd think that those lessons or the many other falls from grace by athletes, politicians and celebrities put up on a pedestal before breaking hearts of their supporters would teach leagues that they might not want to make the upstanding nature of their players the focus of their league's message. You'd think wrong, though.
In one spot, a father sits on the sofa with his young children, reading to them from a large book while a daughter nestles her head on his neck.
In another, a man talks on the telephone to his mother — telling her “I love you” — then tells the camera that she encouraged him to play football as a child to keep him out of trouble.
In a third, a man describes his goal of going to law school and talks about how hard he worked as a student at Notre Dame.
The latest Hallmark campaign? No, the National Football League.
Concerned by growing uneasiness among fans and marketers about athletes gone wild, the league is embarking on an effort to burnish its brand image by accentuating the positive aspects of the on- and off-field lives of its players.
The NFL has commissioned these ads, featuring players like Matt Hasselbeck, Brady Quinn and Vince Young, to try and distance themselves from the Vicks and Pacman Joneses of the world. They are doing that at the same time that they are cracking down on those players to try and sell the league's image as one that won't tolerate bad behavior. Other companies are also using NFL stars in their advertising campaigns continuing a tradition without much concern for the recent spate of arrests and suspensions. Chunky Soup, a longtime NFL sponsor, is using eight players in this year's campaign and says that while they are concerned with misbehavior “it’s pretty isolated in the N.F.L. community.”
Except that it's not. The San Diego Union-Tribune first published a list of player arrests in April 2007 and found 308 of them since 2000 and that number has only grown larger this summer. I've never gotten why I'd want to buy a particular soup or candy bar because Todd Heap or Donovan McNabb says I should but that pales in relation to my lack of understanding of why a company would want to run the risk of damaging their brand. One of Chunky's new spokesmen is Jonathan Vilma of the Jets. He's a fine player but also one who shrugged his shoulders about dogfighting when word of Vick's involvement became public. That doesn't mean that he would ever break any laws himself, of course, but it also doesn't mean that he wouldn't.
Celebrating athletes for being good citizens is part of the problem. To say that being a good father or a good son is something worthy of celebration is to say that there's something fundamentally flawed with athletes that make them exceptions to the norm. I've always been wary of anyone who spent too much time talking about how great a family man they were or how much charity work they did, athletes or otherwise, and these new commercials don't do anything to change my mind. I care about how Vilma performs on the field, not how nice he is to his mother because I expect him to be nice to his mother. It's like Chris Rock said - You're supposed to be.
This is nothing new, it goes all the way back to Charles Barkley's "I don't want to be a role model" commercial for Nike. For every Curtis Martin, Cal Ripken or Dikembe Mutombo there is a Leonard Little, Albert Belle or Chris Washburn. People are people, failable and flawed no matter how fast they run or how high they jump. Tell your kids to work as hard at anything as Michael Jordan worked on basketball and tell them to refuse to surrender their dreams the way that Kurt Warner did but leave it to the things they accomplished on the court or field. Focus on the ones who behave badly off the field, make them personas non grata in the leagues and shame them into leaving or behving better. Don't turn the norm into the exception or you will only get less and less of it going forward.