VINCE MCMAHON’S NEW FOOTBALL LEAGUE WILL RAISE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE SPORT, DRUG TESTING AND POLITICS
Updated: Apr 26, 2019
XFL CEO AND COMMISSIONER OLIVER LUCK SAYS HE IS UP TO THE TASK, NFL VICE PRESIDENT TROY VINCENT HOPES HE GETS THE CHANCE
BY AL THOMPSON
According to spotrac.com, the signing bonus of Indianapolis Colts Pro Bowl quarterback Andrew Luck's was $32 million when he signed the deal in 2016.
The XFL’s entire player payroll for the league’s first season in 2020 will likely not exceed that amount.
The XFL is not going to compete with the NFL in any way with regards to player salaries and talent on the field. It's not even close.
But there are areas XFL owner Vince McMahon, the highly successful proprietor of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), can have an impact not only with the NFL, but with the sport of football, most of which may not be in a positive way.
The XFL's newly crowned CEO and League Commissioner Oliver Luck, father of aforementioned Andrew, is going to try to sell a football league to grid iron fans across America with rosters made up of players who were unable to hold on to NFL practice squad spots.
Unlike minor league teams in baseball, basketball and hockey, Luck will not have direct cooperation from the sport's top league, the NFL.
NFL Vice President of Football Operations, Troy Vincent said the NFL had a “relationship” with the AAF, the minor league football operation that didn't make it past its eighth week, even with ties to the NFL.
Like it or not, until the XFL builds its own following for football fans, McMahon is the star of the XFL.
Vincent said Luck was an outstanding choice to lead the XFL reboot after its failed attempt to establish a pro football league in 2001.
“What I've read about the XFL I believe in, and I've worked closely with Oliver Luck,” Vincent said in a recent interview at his office at NFL headquarters in Manhattan. “And I think with Vince (McMahon) and the team they are putting together led by Oliver, I think they'll do good. I think they've learned some lessons from the past. But I think as they re-introduce their product under Oliver's guidance, I think we're going to see a different brand of football.”
Luck said he planned to learn from the mistakes made in the past by McMahon and other leagues.
“There is a lesson we took from the 2001 XFL,” Luck said in a recent phone interview. “Great hype, great anticipation of the opening game. The game had awesome ratings but the game wasn’t good. The play wasn’t good. Within three or four weeks things really tailed off. What’s the lesson? We’ve got to play good football that’s not just going to attract the viewers, but keep the viewers. That’s what our goal is.”
MCMAHON IS A BILLIONAIRE SET IN HIS, SOMETIMES BRUTAL WAYS
Luck is doing his due diligence with regards to how the game is being played from an entertainment standpoint.
He is also drawing from his experience as Athletic Director at West Virginia University, his alma mater, the NCAA as an executive, as a former NFL quarterback for five seasons with the Houston Oilers (1982–1986) and as the first president and general manager of the Houston Dynamo of MLS. Under his watch, the Dynamo won the MLS Cup in 2006 and 2007.
Luck, who also worked with NFL Europe, has mapped out strategy for the XFL.
He defends their choice to have teams in NFL cities is a sound one. He has defined a strategy to keep the game entertaining while keeping the number of violent hits down that can result in concussions.
Under normal conditions, is there a better choice to lead a start up sports league?
What Luck does not have, is experience working for a character like McMahon and his history of controversy with regards to player safety and ignoring the idea that entertainment rarely wins with the public when it delves into politics.
The man who is the face of the WWE has done very little to ensure that the death rate of his wrestlers under 50 years old will ever be reduced to the what is normal for people in those age groups.
McMahon's lack of compassion for his former wrestlers' health issues was never on more display than on a recent segment on HBO's “Last Week Tonight” hosted by John Oliver. In the segment, Oliver show scenes from matches that illustrate why the WWE is so entertaining and is so successful.
The segment also shows the heartbreaking reality of McMahon and his complete disregard for player's well being, labor laws and illegal drug laws.
It was hard on the eyes and ears to hear the stories of Bret “Hitman” Hart, who lost his bother Owen in the ring, from CM Rush and his concussions, Rowdy Roddy Piper, whose health deteriorated for years until his death at the age of 61 and Jake “the Snake” Roberts, who is broke and in desperate need of medical help. Roberts, like many retired wrestlers, had to resort to a “Go Fund Me” page to help pay for his medical bills.
The segment revealed that McMahon offers no medical insurance or normal benefits for his wrestlers who perform sometimes 200 times a year with no break.
Vincent believes Luck will do things the right way, if allowed.
“His history says so,” Vincent said. “He was a key member of our safety panel. With Oliver Luck, there will be better oversight in this area,”
MCMAHON'S LONG HISTORY WITH STEROIDS AND POOR TESTING POLICIES
Luck appears to have little or no knowledge of McMahon's background with steroids and wrestler fatalities.
In the early 1990s, McMahon was involved in a major drug scandal and was indicted in federal court for distributing steroids to wrestlers. He was eventually acquitted.
Following the murder-suicide of WWE wrestler Chris Benoit in 2007, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee investigated steroid usage in the wrestling industry.
Both Linda and Vince McMahon were under federal investigation from 2007-2009 for rampant steroid use among their wrestlers.
To this day, even though the McMahon's instituted a policy they name the WWE “Talent Wellness Program,” Vince McMahon manipulates the policy depending on how much money a particular wrestler is generating.
Luck was asked if the XFL had a specific drug testing policy in place as of this interview in late March. That's when he appears to have gaps in his knowledge of how the whole drug testing thing works.
Like too many coaches and administrators, Luck looks at a list someone hands him that has rows of complicated-looking descriptions of drugs and substances that say competitors and/or players are being tested for, and he believes that it’s being handled professionally.
“We will be testing for PEDs, performance enhancing drugs,” Luck said. “I don’t think we’ve chosen a vendor for that process. I know the WWE, with its athletes and its performers, wrestlers, has a fairly rigid drug testing program.”
At this point, Luck was told of the McMahon's long history with steroids and the nightmare amount of wrestlers who became drug addicts and/or died while under his watch.
The latest incident involves WWE star wrestler and marquee UFC fighter Brock Lesnar.
The UFC has a drug testing contract with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
In 2016, After his UFC win over Mark Hunt, it was revealed Lesnar failed his USADA drug test and was suspended for a year.
Shortly after he failed the test, Lesnar "retired" from the UFC so he would not be in the USADA testing protocol and he could return to the WWE with no trail of failed tests.
Forbes.com listed Lesnar making $12 million in 2017 as the WWE's No. 1 money-maker, all while on a USADA suspended drug suspension.
In a 2007 CNN documentary, the late Dr. Gary Wadler, an authority on the use of performance-enhancing drugs, said the WWE “Wellness” drug-testing policy was "far, far, far short of where it needed to be." Travis T. Tygard, the CEO for USADA, criticized the WWE’s hollow program in the same CNN piece.
When other media outlets asked the WWE why Lesnar was allowed to perform as a wrestler after being suspended as a UFC fighter, a WWE spokesperson issued this statement.
“WWE’s talent wellness program does not apply to part-time performers such as Brock Lesnar.”
After being told all this, Luck was asked if he could understand that a cynic could argue that Vince McMahon does not take drug testing seriously, Luck immediately walked back his first assessment of the WWE drug testing program.
“Oh sure, he gets lots of criticism, there’s always skepticism,” Luck said after a pause. “I’ll be honest, I don’t have a good grasp of the WWE and their drug testing policies and whatever history they may have. It’s something I just have not felt the need to look into. I think what we will do, in the XFL, is what we believe is appropriate in the world of professional football. That’s the world I live in. I’m just not familiar with much of the drug testing history the WWE has.”
Luck may want to do some homework on that.
The XFL CEO was asked if he have assurances from Vince McMahon that he will be able to put into a place creditable drug testing policy. Luck pivoted to on-field football policies.
“I can only tell you what I’ve experienced since I started which was back in early July (2018),” Luck said. “In terms of re-imagining the game, the rule modifications that we have. We started hiring coaches, we have four more to go. They will be announced relatively soon. We will be establishing what I call our critical pathway in terms of football operations. How do you train brand new teams? I went through this with NFL Europe, how do you take brand new teams, brand new coaches and get them together enough in terms of training the right times, the appropriate times to make sure that good football being played when we launch. Because as you know it’s a short season.”
Luck continued: “All those football-related issues, Vince has said, ‘Oliver, you’re the commissioner, you know football, you know the League. You put all those things together.' He’s interested in them. I give him briefings. He’s really allowed me to build the league as I want to build it. I want to build it properly, build it with real credibility. Because it’s important. Football is something Americans care about. That’s why I took the job. I want to build this league in the way we are building it. I’ve got plenty of leeway to build the league the way I see it. He is the boss. But I can only share my experience for the last seven-eight months.”
ACCORDING TO USADA, NFL AND MLB HAVE GOTTEN DRUG TESTING POLICIES ON TRACK
A spokesperson for the USADA recently stated that the National Football League and Major League Baseball were using “credible” drug testing policies. The USADA does not have a contract with either league.
The NFL started testing for steroids in the late 80's. The program took a lot of criticism for years, especially from the government, for its program's lack of teeth. Over the past 15 years the program has improved.
But that process had its struggles.
The NFL paid a price for its lack of concern for the health and well being of its players, losing to its players in court to the tune of a $765 million settlement over concussion-related brain injuries among its 18,000 retired players, agreeing to compensate victims, pay for medical exams and underwrite research. PEDs were certainly part of the problem that produced these vicious hits.
The league and the NFLPA approved updated substance abuse and performance-enhancing substance policies in September 2014.
The regulations include human growth hormone testing and amended rules on DUIs and marijuana. Third-party arbitration will handle appeals. The deal lifted suspensions for some players the week it was approved.
“I think the work that you've done, I think there has been accountability by the public,” Vincent said. “For our league, for all leagues about player wellness, player safety, player protection. I think the general public, in particular parents, have to hold sports leagues, sports organizations at every level accountable.”
VINCENT TALKS ABOUT THE STATE OF FOOTBALL BEFORE MEASURES WERE TAKEN
Vincent talked about what the state of football was like when he played in Bucks County as a youth on through to a 15-year NFL career.
In virtually every sport, there were mistakes made. At one point, in the late 80s and throughout the 90's, the NFL was ultra violent with ESPN, video games and PEDs fueling the fire. Monster hits to get on ESPN's Sports Center were common.
Concussions were not treated correctly. Veterans such as former Eagles great Bill Bergey would not let his kids play football.
“I played in that era,” Vincent said. “I came in after Bill Bergey, and the next 20 years. What Bill and I experienced is what was taught. It is what was accepted. Today knowing what we know, and this is one of the beauties of what I love in my current position, being a contributor, knowing what I know, I'm not speaking from what I read in a book, but what I was taught in Morrisville, with the Morrisville Little Bulldogs, what I learned at Pennsbury High, what I learned at Madison Wisconsin...all those things transitioned to those 240 starts, those 15 years of playing. Now knowing what I know, seeing the medical community and the football community come together and say 'we have to make some adjustments' necessary adjustments and how do we protect the player?
Vincent continued: “What does athlete wellness look like today compared to what it looked like 20, 30, 40 even 50 years ago?” What was acceptable back then is not acceptable today,” Vincent said. “We refer to it as player protection that encompasses proper equipment fitting, heat and hydration concussion protocol, trainers on the sideline...all those thing factor in to a contract sport. But injuries are going to occur. There are risks associated with contact sports.”
WILL VINCE MCMAHON UNDERMINE WHAT THE NFL HAS DONE TO MAKE THE GAME SAFER?
Luck and Vincent were asked about whether interference by McMahon could undermine the work the NFL as done, through rule changes and improved drug policy over the past 15 years?
Parents have been reluctant to let their kids play football over concerns of exposure to PEDs and concussions.
Could McMahon hurt the NFL's effort to reverse that trend?
Luck said his background being part of a number of programs from youth league to the professional level gives him the expertise no one can challenge, even McMahon.
“As a former college player, former NFL player and someone whose got a kid playing football, I’ve been involved professionally with a lot of the health and safety efforts within the game of football,” Luck said. “I served on the board of USA Football, which is the governing body for youth football, trying to bring standards into youth football: better coaching, better technique teaching. I served on the NFL players safety advisory panel for six or seven years, chaired by John Madden and Ronnie Lott and that group makes recommendations to the competition committee by health and safety issues.”
Vincent did not want to guess on what measures McMahon might resort to if the numbers in the stands and on TV are down.
“I don't want to speculate,” Vincent said. I would hope that, we, the NFL, were measured by what we do. We can't control what other alliances or leagues are doing. We hope that we're measured on what we've done. Again, without speculating, I do believe Oliver Luck, coming from where he's come from, The NCAA, athletic director at West Virginia, the athlete-player wellness was at the top of his priorities. I believe that will carry over.”
COULD NFL AND XFL BE USED AS POLITICAL FOOTBALLS IN 2020 ELECTIONS?
One of the most effective narratives President Trump resorted to during his first two years in office has been to attack the NFL and its players during the league's struggle with players protests during the National Anthem before games.
It was effective. Many people from both parties were offended by the players strategy to protest social injustice to minorities throughout the country in this manner.
Many did understand that the players – mostly minorities in this country, but the majority on NFL rosters – were just standing up for those who where not in a position to have a voice otherwise.
Many people did not care that Trump tried to become an owner of a NFL franchise five times and failed to get into the ultimate alpha male fraternity. It was a clear bias against NFL owners, but many people looked past that.
But a significant amount of people were simply too offended to the act of kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem.
The XFL, Luck and McMahon have stated that all players will be contractually obligated to stand for the National Anthem before games. This is not an agreement like the one reached years ago by NBA players and the league on how players will behave before games and how the league and players will work together to help with their communities.
Luck said players and their agents will be aware of this policy or there is no contract to play in the XFL. Former WWE CEO Linda McMahon was in Trump's cabinet for the first two years of his presidency. She recently moved into a position in his 2020 re-election campaign.
She herself donated between $7 million and $9 million to Trump's campaign in 2016.
“The players know coming into the XFL, if they’re interested in playing in our league, they know our terms and conditions of employment,” Luck said. “They will all sign contracts. They all have agents, right? They will have to advise them.”
Both Linda and Vince McMahon are major Trump supporters. The protests were a hot topic in 2017, and even though the protests have subsided, the topic has all the ingredients to repeat itself by both parties in 2020, the year the XFL is opening its doors for business. Luck said he wants no part of the XFL becoming a political talking point.
“We want at the end of the day, to be an A-political non-partisan league,” Luck said. “I really believe that the vast majority of Americans who want to come watch a football game live at a venue, or watch it on television, I think they’re interested in watching good, quality football, an up-tempo game, etc. All the things we’re trying to accomplish. Obviously we don’t live in some sort of hermetically-sealed bubble outside of the political world. We will go about out business and train our players and our coaches, do our training camps, we’ll play football.”
Vincent said the NFL's strategy is to simply take care of their business, work with their players on their issues and get on with the next season.
“Frankly for us, the league and the players here, owners, we've been just focusing on our efforts,” Vincent said. “We haven't been thinking about the 'what ifs.' We've just been focusing on and been diligent and disciplined on what the owners and the players have set forth now, going on three years, we've been working that process. The external noise, we've just been focusing on local, regional and national efforts.”
Vincent though, sounded like the NFL is at least thinking about the 2020 election, if not formally, at least in their minds as individuals and their role in the NFL.
“I haven't had any discussions about any strategy (towards Trump),” Vincent said. “We've been focusing so hard. We just launched our “Inspired Change” during Super Bowl 53 here. The players legislative efforts, the communication efforts, the local efforts, we've been disciplined. It's been process oriented.
“When that (Trump's rhetoric) stopped,” Vincent continued. “Is when we started formalizing what we wanted to do. We said 'here's our plan. We're not going to get involved. We can't control what's going on and what people are saying, what they're not saying, what they're doing and what they're not doing. What's our plan? Players, owners, commissioner...what are we going to do together? What do we think is best for the communities? I think through that process, it wasn't easy at all, but we worked together.”
Vincent said the NFL and the players made mistakes with regards to the rhetoric from the White House. And they have learned from those mistakes.
“We've been battle tested,” Vincent said. “We've been battle tested. I think no one, I think all would agree that there was a lot of agreeing and disagreeing (during the players protests of 2017-18)......and we got to a place where we said 'here are the areas we're going to focus on and work together on.' A lot of folks, whether its sports leagues or other organizations, they haven't been battle tested publicly.”
Vincent said people still tried to stir the pot pot regarding the conflicts between the league and its players.
“This season, 2018, people tried to throw rocks and the players, the owners, past players, present players, coaches...everyone were on the same page,” Vincent said. 'This is what we're doing. This is what we're doing together. And it was a wonderful season. And again, even with every now and then you have something that most would consider a distraction, they stayed on point. We stayed on focus.”
Vincent brought up examples of how the league and players stopped going at each other and go some things done together. The matter with NFL players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid was settled.
Vincent talked about a program with NFL players called “Players Coalition” and its members that included current Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Long and Rodney McLeod, and what they accomplished in 2018.
“Many tried to divide,” Vincent said. “And it appeared there was a division. And there was. There were differences of opinion, differences on how we address issues. Now you see this partnership.
Vincent continued: "Now that we start to come together on things that we agreed upon and how we approached it...we've seen law changes, we've seen policy changes. Even in Philadelphia we had bail reform. Bail reform has changed, cash bail has changed in the City of Philadelphia. Malcolm Jenkins and that group did it. So when we look at what has been accomplished, there has been a lot. Voting registration ...just some of the things that we have been able to do together over the last 24 months. It didn't start that way. Then it became very clear that we had a partnership.”
FINALLY … HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH MCMAHON? A MAN WITH NO SHAME
The WWE has made some decisions over the years that have caused controversy to say the least. Whether is humiliating women or dwarfs in the ring, using racial slurs during bits or McMahon's refusal to help retired wrestler's health, he has never apologized or second-guessed himself.
Most recently McMahon decided to hold a WWE match in Saudi Arabia while news of the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman raged across the United States and around the world.
The murder of Khashoggi, who was in the last stages of becoming a United States citizen, also fanned the 9/11 flames among many Americans, who believe Saudi Arabia was behind the Attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001.
Also it was revealed that the Crown Prince would not allow any WWE women wrestlers to perform.
Many voices called on McMahon to cancel the show. Several top wrestlers refused to go. But a reported $35 million payday was on the line...so the show went on.
If revenue and TV ratings are down, would McMahon play a XFL game in Saudi Arabia for a big check and the headlines, regardless of how negative they would no doubt be?
“That's theirs,” Vincent said, rolling his eyes. “I can tell you where our 255 games are going to be played next year and our schedule. Oliver Luck...that's his direction.”
Vincent made this point: If Luck is successful running the XFL, he can show the football universe he is strong and can shoot down any questionable ideas from McMahon.
“Some will say this is his opportunity,” Vincent said. “I think we're all looking forward to the learning. There's going to be a lot of learning here.”
Luck was asked the same questions about McMahon and the unpredictable situations he could be confronted with as 2020 approaches.
Luck didn't deny that working for Vince McMahon will be unique.
"I’ve had a variety of bosses I’ve reported to,” Luck said. “My superiors over the years have been Mark Emmert of the NCAA, Phil Anschutz of the Houston Dynamo, Gordon Gee, President of West Virginia University, Roger Goodell back in my NFL Europe days. I try to treat all my superiors with respect, with full transparency Come in and share my transparency with whatever it is and we agree on a path forward. I’ve been on the job seven, eight months, I’ve been able to do those things that I think we need to do within that time frame to begin to build our foundation. We have a lot more work to do obviously. Everything I’ve wanted to do with this league we’ve been able to accomplish. I don’t lose any sleep at night worrying about things that may happen.”
Many things can happen, good and bad. If there is no credible drug testing and the carrot of fame is out there for the taking, if there is anything the WWE has proved over the years is true, it is that people will do virtually anything for fame, even die.
Then at least McMahon can say...”Hey, at least we had them all standing for the National Anthem!” *
Note: Some contract clarifications from league sources, pro-football-reference.com and various Wikipedia pages.
Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii