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Lockout is a boon for free speech ... and free laughs

by | Senior Writer

Wes Welker was right. We could use a lockout every year.

It's not just that it gives players a chance to rest their bodies; it's that it gives them a chance to exercise their freedom of speech, and let's be honest: Who needs football when you have guys like James Harrison, Ray Lewis and Rashard Mendenhall to air out the First Amendment?

If there weren't a lockout, we would have updates on Peyton Manning's recovery from neck surgery, Cam Newton's adaption to pro football and Donovan McNabb's next employer. Instead, we have NFL stars stepping into the void to entertain us with opinions, tweets and social commentary that read like scripts from Saturday Night Live.

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In the latest issue of Men's Journal, for example, Harrison shreds teammate Ben Roethlisberger, ridicules Mendenhall and hammers NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, calling him a "crook" and "a devil." He later claimed his comments were misconstrued by the writer, but I haven't heard him disclaim that photograph where he brandishes two handguns -- smart if you're modeling for the next issue of Guns and Ammo; not so smart if you're working for the NFL.

But not so smart is what makes this lockout worthwhile. It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world, and we're reminded of it every day someone forgets that it's usually a good idea to know what you're talking about before you actually talk about it.

So Harrison torches Goodell. Big deal. He isn't the only one to call out the commish. San Diego linebacker Kevin Burnett labeled him "a blatant liar." Baltimore wide receiver Derrick Mason characterized him as "a joke." And former New York Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer likened Goodell's handling of the lockout to tactics used by the Gestapo in Nazi Germany during World War II.


At least Toomer had the good sense to retract his comments and apologize immediately. Harrison first claimed his words were misinterpreted. Then, after realizing the wildfire he started, he went into all-out damage control -- telling Showtime's Inside the NFL that he wanted to apologize for "speaking in such a candid manner to someone outside the team."

OK, that's a start. But then he went on to apologize for a homophobic slur, saying he meant no respect to the gay community and that it was "a careless use of a slang word, and I apologize to all who were offended by the remark."

He should've stopped at the apology. The implication there, of course, is that if you were offended, he's sorry; if you weren't, he's not -- meaning it's OK to use that term, just so long as you offend no one. Harrison also explained that the "context" of his conversation with Men's Journal was "lost" in the story, a ploy frequently used when someone screws up but isn't willing to admit it.

In fact, it reminds me of a story a former Cleveland Browns executive once told about a player who years ago was quoted in the local papers as criticizing the head coach. When confronted, the player denied the story, claiming he was misquoted.

"But the reporter has you on tape," he was told.

"Oh," the player said. "That's another story."

Chad Ochocinco's gimmicks have included NASCAR laps, bull riding and a soccer dalliance. (AP)  
Chad Ochocinco's gimmicks have included NASCAR laps, bull riding and a soccer dalliance. (AP)  
But it's always another story during the lockout, and hallelujah ... which brings us to Lewis. The star linebacker earlier this year took a turn at playing Nostradamus when he warned about the ramifications of life without football, predicting that it would spike an increase in crime.

"Do the research," he told ESPN. "If we don't have a season, watch how much evil -- which we call crime -- watch how much crime picks up if you take away our game."

So the good people at PolitiFact Georgia accepted Lewis' challenge and "did the research," contacting Northeastern's Sports on Society center to see if Lewis knew what he was talking about. Turns out he did not, with the center saying there was actually less crime in Baltimore after the Ravens' season ended in January.

By that time, however, nobody was paying attention. Lewis made the headlines; the facts barely made a ripple. But why let facts get in the way of a good sound bite? Pro football is, after all, more than just a sport; it's entertainment. And if we don't have games we should be grateful that geniuses like James Harrison and Rashard Mendenhall are around to make us feel better about ourselves.

It was Mendenhall who wondered why people celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden and who questioned the events of 9/11, saying, "We'll never know what happened. I just have a hard time believing a plane could take down a skyscraper demolition style." Four words for you, Rashard: Go to the video.

You can't make this stuff up, which is why this talk of an impending settlement is so disturbing. I mean, we need something more than Chad Ochocinco's tweets, bull rides or MLS tryouts to keep us connected to football. Fortunately, James Harrison et al. have been more than cooperative, and I think I speak for most of us when I say, "Thank you."

Because next time you see Harrison making a tackle, hammering a quarterback or returning an interception, think what life would be like without pro football -- and, no, I'm no referencing Ray Lewis again. I'm talking about another series of op-eds from Harrison and Mendenhall.

Now that's what I call entertainment.


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