ESPN is letting them have it.
[url=http://www.espn.com/blog/nflnation/post/_/id/209207/nfl-must-own-its-latest-embarrassment-not-shift-the-blame]http://www.espn.com/blog/nflnation/post ... -the-blame[/url]
As is so often with the NFL, you don't know whether to laugh, shake your head or wag your finger at Sunday night's decision to cancel the Hall of Fame Game. So let's do all three.
It's funny, of course, because it's only Aug. 7 and already the league has provided fresh grist to a sporting public that craves moments to rake its credibility.
It's ridiculous, naturally, to think that an NFL event -- preseason or otherwise -- was scuttled by something as dumb as congealed field paint.
And it's genuinely concerning, unfortunately, that the league still has enough holes in its recently strengthened stadium protocol for this to happen. According to officials from both teams, no one discovered the field's poor conditions until two hours before the scheduled kickoff.
Pro Football Hall of Fame president David Baker said "it was an easy ethical decision" to cancel the game, and a joint statement from the NFL and the NFL Players Association touted that "player safety is our primary concern."
How comforting it is to note that, apparently, no one struggled with the idea of playing a game on a field that had deteriorated into a tar-like substance at midfield and in the end zones. Seriously, though, the spin on player safety -- See, we treat our players well! -- shouldn't overshadow an embarrassing logistical gaffe on the part of a league that puts on hundreds of events per year.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay seemed to implicate the grounds crew at Tom Benson Stadium. In an interview with ESPN, Irsay said the field passed an NFL/NFLPA inspection earlier in the day. At some point afterward, he said, the nefarious paint job took place.
"This shouldn't happen," Irsay said. "It's not difficult. Obviously everyone out there says, 'Hey you're a $12 billion league. How could you not have a field out there ready to go?' Well, the Hall of Fame is sort of separate and gets run a little differently from the league. But ... as owners, we'll have to get it right so it never happens again."
While technically accurate, Irsay's explanation was weak and a cop-out of the worst kind. Surely it won't register with most fans who don't care about the corporate distinction between the NFL and the independent Pro Football Hall of Fame. This was an NFL preseason game to be played by two NFL teams, Irsay's Colts and the Green Bay Packers, between players employed by the NFL and to be televised via the NFL's contract with ESPN. The league must own this preseason game as it does all others.
If the problem occurred as Irsay claimed -- that an independent grounds crew applied paint that ruined the field -- it's the NFL's fault for not providing the proper post-inspection vigilance.
As funny as this episode might be, it's not just a Keystone Kops comedy of errors. It's a reminder that NFL players must fear injuries not just from contact with each other but also from faulty field conditions that should be entirely preventable in 2016.
The NFL has canceled only three games in the past 21 years because of field conditions, but players routinely complain about surfaces at Chicago's Soldier Field and Houston's Reliant Stadium, among others. Last season, then-San Francisco 49ers running back Reggie Bush tore his ACL after running into a wall on the slick track at St. Louis' Edward Jones Dome. And for Pete's sake, Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham tore his ACL in last year's Hall of Fame Game.
Amid widespread complaints about the field conditions in that game, the Hall of Fame imported a used playing surface from the Superdome in New Orleans. That transition alone should have heightened the NFL's sensitivities in the days leading up to Sunday night's game.
Earlier this summer, the NFL and NFLPA formed a Field Surface & Performance Committee to, according to a media release, "provide advice and guidance regarding the safety, performance and testing of non-NFL game day and practice surfaces." In other words, its first charge was to prevent exactly the type of mistake that occurred Sunday night. The answer appears simple: Don't stage any games in non-NFL stadiums. Next year, put the Hall of Fame Game in nearby Cleveland.
"The paint job that occurred is really unprecedented," Irsay lamented. He added that he wanted to "get to the bottom of exactly who got this paint job done and why was there incompetence."
And there you go. We are but one week into August and already the NFL must root out the source of a new ineptitude. I'm not sure whether to laugh, cry or whistle. Let's do all three -- just to be safe. For those who like their "-gates," we can now add "Paintgate" to the list. Welcome to the 2016 NFL ... preseason.