It was 1970 or thereabouts, and the NFL commissioner wanted to know what the big deal was with marijuana. “Someday,” Pete Rozelle told Blair Sabol, the daughter of legendary NFL Films propagandist Ed Sabol, “I am going to have to deal with a lot of players over this.” Why not try it, Blair Sabol suggested, and see for yourself? They were in Acapulco, Mexico, and earlier that day Sabol had scored some Acapulco Gold on the beach, and now here they were, Blair and her brother, Steve, a fine mythmaker in his own right, smoking up the man who created the modern NFL.
What I like about this story is not just the 1970s of it all, the ganja clouds dancing in the breezes off Acapulco Bay, but the way Rozelle goes wandering through it, seemingly unstuck in time, in some permanent 1961 of the soul—Gregory Peck showing up on the deck of the Love Boat. “This does nothing for me,” he kept saying, as Blair Sabol recounted for sportswriter Jerry Izenberg. “I don’t feel a thing.” Puff, exhale. “Nothing at all.” Puff, exhale. “Absolutely nothing.”
“[T]hen he started to laugh and we started to laugh and it went on that way for a while, and then he got very quiet,” Sabol recalled. “Thinking back, he probably was stoned.” And thus a narc was born. The next day, Rozelle announced, “I still don’t know what the big deal is, but I feel like this”—pot—“could be a problem for my guys.”
On Thursday night, an enormously talented offensive lineman out of Ole Miss named Laremy Tunsil dropped several spots in the NFL draft because he’d smoked some pot. Specifically, he dropped because, moments before the draft, a video had been posted on his Twitter account in which Tunsil can be seen huffing a bong through a gas mask. This differs from what Rozelle did only in the degree to which Tunsil committed himself to the task of getting monumentally baked. But this is the NFL, and the NFL in its own way remains unstuck in time, and while Tunsil waited and waited—until the Miami Dolphins took him with the 13th pick—a cockeyed sort of righteousness overtook the proceedings.
“Some people might empathize with Laremy Tunsil because apparently somebody hijacked their account and put it out there,” the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said. “However, to me that’s self-inflicted. OK, the guy was doing something he shouldn’t be doing. He was photographed doing it.”
Over on ESPN, Jon Gruden pronounced himself disgusted. “This whole thing makes me sick,” he said. “This whole social media scene makes me sick. If you’re a young kid out there, put away your Twitter accounts, all right, if you want to be a pro football player. Somebody’s gonna hack your account. Somebody’s gonna cause some problems. You gotta be a reliable person to stand up here on the stage and be a first-round draft choice.”
Gruden said later: “We live in a glass house these days. … There’s a lot of money and people’s futures at stake. I hope this doesn’t come back to haunt Tunsil. Hopefully it’s a learning experience for him. He’s gotta clean this up if he wants to play in this league.”
The outrage wasn’t so much about the pot as it was about Tunsil putting himself in the position of getting bad publicity. Rozelle was a PR man before he was a commissioner, and he instilled within the NFL a PR man’s fear not of the thing itself but of what someone else might think of the thing. From the start, the flack’s mentality has defined the league’s approach to controlled substances. The NFL has never cared about the drugs themselves, only that the median NFL fan might care about the drugs. Johnny Blood was gobbling pep pills as far back as the 1930s, and a few decades later the trainers for the San Diego Chargers were putting out bowls of Dianabol on the dining tables—“next to the salt and pepper,” as historian and former NFL-er Michael Oriard has written. Recreational drugs were tolerated, too, until they’d been demagogued into national disfavor. Not a big deal, in Rozelle’s phrase, but a problem nonetheless.
Now that weed is all but legal, there’s no substance left to the old moral panic, but the Rozellian acquiescence to the appearance of a problem remains. Tunsil’s mistake, by the reckoning of the TV media covering the draft, lay in giving the public too genuine a whiff of himself and of his sport. Not long after the inconvenient tweet had appeared—Tunsil’s agent said Thursday night that the account had been hacked—someone posted to the player’s Instagram two screenshots of text exchanges supposedly with members of the Ole Miss athletic department. In them, Tunsil asks for help with rent and his mother’s electric bill. Either of these payments would constitute an improper benefit within the warped context of the NCAA, but they are relevant to his professional career only insofar as there is idiotic precedent for Roger Goodell wiggling his pecs over such things. In a press conference minutes after his selection by the Dolphins, Tunsil was asked directly if he’d taken money. “I’d have to say yeah,” he responded.
This was flabbergasting. It was too honest. “There’s no way I heard that correctly,” one reporter said, according to Sports Illustrated. “There’s no fucking way that just happened.” On ESPN, a talking haircut named Todd McShay was not happy with the offensive lineman. “One thing Tunsil did today that was his fault and he should never have done was answering those questions,” he said, “then go sell out the coaching staff at Ole Miss. You just have to be—he’s gonna have to mature very quickly …”
“Awareness factor,” a talking haircut named Mark Dominik interjected.
“… Or else this league is gonna eat him up.”
And on and on it went, like Draft Day as scripted by Paddy Chayefsky, the whole night caught between the real stuff and the league’s instinct to euphemize and repress the real stuff lest it offend someone’s Aunt Edna—caught, in other words, between no big deal and a problem. In Roger Goodell’s NFL, there are few illusions remaining about the sport Rozelle worked so hard to cover in myth. But the old reflex remains. Not long after his admission that he took money, Tunsil was spirted off the stage by a PR person and “briefed” behind a closed door. Spark one tonight for the ghost of Pete Rozelle.