In a week where we have seen the world of football surrounded by talk of the Patriots’ legacy being tainted for underinflated footballs and Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank admitting to the use of fake crowd noise, cheating in the NFL has been on everyone’s mind. The legitimacy of the game so loved in the US sure takes a hit but at least it was not a single player at the heart of the controversy. However, we have a new story coming to light about the man many say is the single greatest player in league history.
ESPN released a video a few weeks ago about the evolution of receiving gloves in the NFL. A little over a minute in, Jerry Rice admits that he used to put a little stickum, a banned substance by the league, on his gloves to make sure they had that extra bit of grip. The NFL officially outlawed the substance in 1981. Rice joined the league in 1985. At no point could the Hall of Fame receiver have played using stickum without violating NFL rules. Rice would have been great regardless but once again, this is a matter of going to any length for a competitive edge.
For some context, Hall of Fame receiver Andre Reed explains in the video that using stickum would allow you to completely control a football. It did not require you to grip it so much as simply touch it for the ball to stick to your hand. It made hanging on to the football both when catching it and when running with it much easier. Receiver gloves nowadays act in a similar manner but not to the point where players can palm a ball without gripping. Not to mention that gloves are not illegal to use in the NFL.
Back to Rice, he holds just about every meaningful record for a receiver in NFL history. A few have fallen but not many. The question now raised is does this taint what Rice did at all? He acknowledged that what he was doing was unfair, saying, “I know this might be a little illegal guys, I just put a little spray, a little stickum on ’em, to make sure that texture is a little sticky.” It is not the biggest thing in the world for a receiver to have used stickum but it is illegal. What makes it worse is that Rice knew he was breaking the rules. It was something the league did not heavily enforce at the time. However, using stickum is not all that different from having underinflated footballs or fabricated crowd noise. It gives you a slight edge that may not affect the outcome of a game but will go down as an unfair advantage.
This all boils down to the culture of the NFL. It is a win at all costs league. It seems that every era has some sort of scandal and they almost never seem to be the same. Players and teams are continually finding new ways around the rules all the time. It really tears down the integrity of the NFL if you ask me. This league has more scandals than any other in the United States and likely the world. It is disappointing to me as a fan to see the sport that I love more than any other tarnished over and over again by a list of infractions that is slowly building each year.
On a different level, it is really unfortunate to find out that an NFL legend like Rice was using stickum. It does not change his credibility as an elite player because Rice was still one of the most cerebral and dedicated football players of all time. It does make you think a little thought about the level of his success. It also makes you think of this year’s Patriots. There was no doubting that New England would have been good because of its talent and preparation. But the controversy leaves you wondering what if. The issue is that the Patriots have caught a lot more flack for this. In my eyes, if you want to put an asterisk next to the 2015 Super Bowl champions go ahead. But you better be putting one next to Jerry Rice’s records then. Cheating is cheating, no matter who does it, when it happens or how strongly it is enforced. Holding one example accountable means that you must hold all other accountable as well. That is just the culture of the NFL now. Find a way to get an edge, and do the best you can to make sure you don’t get caught.