John Madden: NFL sheriff with a past

Near everyone’s favorite allegorical masterpiece portraying the slimy dynamics of monumental hypocrisy comes from the WWII-era Hollywood cinematic gem “Casablanca.” You’ll quickly recall it’s that delightful scene when Captain Louey, the corrupt Vichy gendarme superbly played by Claude Rains, uses his astounding discovery that there is gambling going on as an excuse for closing down Rick Blaine’s (Humphrey Bogart’s) Roadhouse in order to appease the local Nazi nutcake. “I’m shocked, absolutely shocked, to find that gambling is going on in this establishment,” Louey righteously bellows. Whereupon a lackey from the roulette table approaches him with a swag and says; “Your winnings, sir!”
It’s wonderfully rendered, a perfect demonstration of the repugnant piety that lies at the essential core of all the truly calculated deceit.

And now we have another such brilliant illustration drawn from our own bankrupt times, courtesy of the National Football League. It has to with the soaring scandal stemming from revelations that the New Orleans Saints secretly allowed the funding of cash pools from which “bounties” were awarded to defensive players who delivered hits sufficiently brutal to injure opponents.

Reportedly, the going price on the Saints under the enlightened direction of former defensive coordinator Greg Williams was a thousand bucks if your victim had to be helped or, better still, carried off the field (they called them “cart-offs”), and $1,500 if you knocked the sucker out of the game. Allegedly, the hefty price of $10 grand was placed on the head of Packers QB Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC title game. A tough cookie, Favre got run into the ground on that occasion, but escaped annihilation.

The mounting scandal has reputedly stunned people, although for you to be “stunned” by this, you either have been residing on the dark side of the moon the last three decades or have spent all of your autumnal Sundays in a cave safely protected from the brainwashing dutifully performed every week by CBS, NBC, and ESPN. Given the ferocity that routinely characterizes every NFL game, nothing should surprise anyone who has watched one for more than 15 minutes.

And yet the breast-beating and protestations of shock and shame have been overwhelming while doubtless only just beginning. Everybody who is anybody in this game is being asked to react and the responses have been almost uniform. “It is absolutely sinful,” they are essentially saying. Most confess to being utterly appalled while insisting, of course, that they had never heard of such behavior let alone imagined it possible.

But among the most anguished of football’s good old boys now so piously declaiming this utter outrage is none other than John Madden. He wins my “Louey the Corrupt Vichy Gendarme Memorial Award” for righteous indignation beyond the call of duty, let alone conscience. Good old Uncle John! I could have predicted he would come up big on this one.

Most of you will mainly remember Madden as the amiable, often jovial, and always genial host of many of network television’s most memorable football moments over a full generation. For some he became almost lovable, an avuncular presence full of wisdom. Sort of the Walter Cronkite of the color men. Only vaguely remembered is the fact that Madden, in his earlier incarnation that made him successful and wealthy and a member of the Football Hall of Fame, was the coach of arguably the dirtiest, most vicious, and least principled team in the history of the NFL, the 1970s Oakland Raiders.

John was a smart fellow; rather canny, in my estimation. He was pleasant and affable and always great with the media even as the team he was coaching was being widely despised. These were the years when I was a regular on the NFL beat covering the Patriots intensely and I was skeptical of the prevailing wisdom that maintained Madden was a swell fellow. It was nothing he ever said or did to me, only the assumption that Al Davis, owner of the Raiders and then the game’s de facto “Darth Vader,” wasn’t in the habit of putting jolly St. Nick in charge of his football team. Nor would the brigands of this particular sporting penal colony -- including such engaging characters as Jack Tatum, Butch Atkinson, Phil Villipiano, Otis Sistrunk, Marv Matuszak, and Ted ‘Mad Storch’ Hendricks -- have wanted to play for one.

It all came down to that unforgettable evening in Oakland in the late summer of 1978. It was a meaningless, totally irrelevant, pre-season exhibition having no issue or purpose for the veterans other than to get them in shape and yet Tatum, who was a mad dog on the field no matter the circumstances, found it necessary to nail the Patriots’ fine wide-receiver, Darryl Stingley, with a brutal helmet to the base of the spine shot on a simple pass reception that left Stingley paralyzed. He never walked again, spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, and died in his early ‘50’s. I knew Darryl Stingley. I knew him well. He was a heck of a fellow. What happened to him changed my view of the National Football League. Permanently!

Madden was contrite at the time, even remorseful. He said all the right things, for which he has an obvious talent. Interestingly, he quit coaching at the end of that ’78 season although he’d been wildly successful in Oakland for a decade and there was no doubt a connection. I’m not suggesting his regret was not genuine. But I don’t recall him ever embracing the fundamental point that as captain of that ship of sociopathic football fools, he was essentially responsible for all their manic excesses, including the Stingley tragedy.

The late Jack Tatum was out of control before he landed in Oakland and doubtless not much improved after he left. But on the Raiders, Madden sharpened and cultivated Tatum’s fury, and skillfully orchestrated it, and deployed it with malice aforethought. There were no “bounties” on the Raiders; no slush funds. Tatum and his buddies got no bonuses for maiming opponents. John Madden was too smart for that and Al Davis, in all of his legendary malice, wouldn’t have tolerated it.

Bounties are stupid. These guys weren’t stupid. But if there were no bounties back then, the players still benefited in other meaningful ways. They knew what was expected of them and they knew it was greatly to their advantage to deliver it. And they also knew what would happen if they didn’t.

Today, it is an august John Madden -- retired as well from the broadcast booth – who, in his role as an elder statesmen, serves as co-chair of the NFL’s so-called Safety Panel and as chairman of the coaches subcommittee of the influential NFL Competition Committee. In the entangled bureaucracy of the multi-billion dollar industry that the NFL has become, this is mighty important stuff.

It’s in these exalted capacities that Madden is being called upon to denounce the bounty business and all the bad boys involved in it, and he’s doing it well, sounding almost like a guy running for office. He says he’s confident that his good friend Roger Goodell, the commissioner, will come down hard on the culprits. He expresses no mercy for Saints Coach Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis. With the lodge brothers defecting, you may expect both to eventually walk the plank. He says new regulations to protect quarterbacks and running backs are necessary because they’re so vulnerable. But he did not mention wide receivers. Of Goodell, he says “When he puts some teeth in the rules this won’t happen again.” He sounds angry.

Isn’t it nice to have John Madden on-board in the campaign to clean up this nasty business and isn’t it especially nice to see all those NFL warlords suddenly so hot and bothered about their dear game’s ever mounting violence and frightening dangers.

But you’ll pardon us if we snicker when they suggest there is something new about all this, and I’m sure you will understand if we find it even harder to accept John Madden having much to say about this game’s issues of safety and codes of conduct. For the friends of the late Darryl Stingley, that is just a bit too much to swallow.


Subscribe to the Dorchester Reporter