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Hall of Fame Game cancellation: NFL made the right decision

CANTON, Ohio -- More than three hours before what was supposed to be the first game of the 2016 NFL season, the culmination of an emotional weekend in which thousands of fans expressed their admiration for a legendary Titletown gunslinger, the Green Bay Packers' current star quarterback strode across the middle of the turf at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium on Sunday afternoon and wondered if he'd stepped on a slippery rock.

"It was hard, almost like plastic," Aaron Rodgers said. "And it was also slick -- not good. I was like, 'Are they really gonna play on this?' Then I came back out an hour later, and there were about 100 people huddled around discussing it, and I thought, 'This is probably not a good sign.' "

When Rodgers and the Packers re-emerged from the locker room at 8 p.m. ET, the scheduled kickoff time for their Hall of Fame Game against the Indianapolis Colts, they were not wearing pads -- essentially confirming for the thousands of fans in attendance that the NFL's preseason opener had, in fact, been canceled due to an unsafe playing surface. Shortly thereafter, many of those fans were loudly booing Pro Football Hall of Fame president David Baker as he made the official announcement over the loudspeaker while legions of others vented their frustrations on social media.

And even the impending presence on the field of newly busted Hall of Famer Brett Favre, who'd joked at the beginning of his induction speech Saturday night that he might lobby his former bosses to play the first series, couldn't completely cheer up the paying customers.

Suddenly and embarrassingly, a league that has celebrated the jingle "Are You Ready For Some Football?" was Not Ready For Prime Time, and even the star quarterback who actually was scheduled to play in the game (hint: it wasn't Rodgers) felt a bit -- pardon our word choice -- deflated.

"I was kinda looking forward to it," Colts quarterback Andrew Luck said. "I mean, I was maybe gonna play one series, but still, it's that first game. I looked at our young guys' faces, and I felt sad. I mean, I remember my first preseason game, how excited I was ... But, you know, I understand. It's not worth it."

No, it was not worth the risk -- certainly not in the case of Luck, a young man who recently signed a six-year, $140 million contract -- and not for anyone governed by a sports league that touts player safety as one of its guiding principles.

As bitter a pill to swallow as this was for Baker, a giant of a man with an enormous heart who has done much to revitalize the Hall, he knew letting the show go on could have been a colossal mistake. As a former NFL parent -- his son, Sam Baker, was an Atlanta Falcons tackle from 2008 through '14 -- Baker, who consulted with NFL officials before jointly deciding to pull the plug, understood the stakes.

"It's a real hard decision to make," Baker told me later, "but it's a real easy ethical decision. If Sam were playing, it's what I would have wanted someone else to do. I hope this is the greatest statement in the history of this league for player safety. It would have been the wrong thing to make them play."

Consider that in this game a year ago, Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham suffered a torn ACL after losing his footing while covering the opening kickoff of the second half, an injury he and several of his teammates blamed on the then-11-year-old FieldTurf at the stadium. Lost for the season, Suisham was subsequently released by Pittsburgh this past June, at which point he referred to last summer's injury as "catastrophic." 

Though the turf had since been replaced (more on that in a moment), Baker understood that a sequel to the Suisham injury would have been untenable.

Less than four hours before kickoff, I sat with Baker in his office at the adjacent Pro Football Hall of Fame and listened to him excitedly talk about the ongoing expansion of the property that, by 2019, will have drastically upgraded the potential for consumer satisfaction. I'd just emerged from an impressive hologram-driven exhibit called "A Game For Life" that is serving as somewhat of a beta test for similar showcases, and we talked about the four-star hotel and waterpark and other amenities in the works.

With more stadium work scheduled to begin this month, the setup for Sunday's game was essentially a stopgap; new turf had been installed since last year, and the field -- which had been raised 15 feet -- was covered for Friday night's Tim McGraw concert and Saturday night's enshrinement ceremony.

According to several sources familiar with the field preparation, things went awry after the subsequent painting of logos in the middle of the field and in the end zones on Sunday. Improper paint may have been used, and when it did not seem to be drying quickly enough, someone apparently made the dubious decision to heat the field in an effort to dry it -- thus melting the rubber pellets inside the FieldTurf and creating a slick, sticky and (in Baker's words) "congealed" effect.

At one point about 2.5 hours before the game, stadium workers applied a substance that appeared to be paint thinner in an effort to remedy the issue. However, according to a Packers source, one Green Bay employee noticed a label that warned of severe burns when exposed to skin and took a photo of it, showing it to others after the teams later retreated to their respective locker rooms.

While inside, Colts linebacker D'Qwell Jackson texted me, "It sucks, but the conditions of the field weren't safe for any player on either roster."

In other words: Peace out.

Then came the grumbling. Sure, this was a bummer for the fans, who Baker promised would be entitled to a full refund, and it was a bit of a buzzkill for many others planning to watch the game on ESPN. Some of the less heralded players for the Packers and Colts lost a valuable chance to make positive impressions on their coaches, and the whole thing was a bad look for the NFL and for the Hall.

However, let's put it in perspective. This was a preseason game, and an extra one at that, featuring two organizations whose leaders undoubtedly would prefer playing no more than the usual four exhibitions, rather than five. And the prospect that any player for one of those teams, let alone a highly productive one, could have needlessly suffered a significant injury made this a no-brainer and, ultimately, a non-starter.

Among the nicer moments that took place as the two teams mingled on the field following a brief ceremony Sunday night was a long, ebullient conversation between Colts running back Frank Gore -- a man with Hall of Fame potential -- and Eddie DeBartolo, who once owned the San Francisco 49ers, the team for which Gore starred from 2005 through '14, and who is the uncle of current Niners CEO Jed York.

During his passionate induction speech on Saturday night, DeBartolo displayed the heart that made him so beloved by so many of the men he employed. At one point, DeBartolo brought scores of gold-jacket-wearing fellow Hall of Famers to their feet onstage by making a passionate plea for treating players as more than commodities, and it was one of the most stirring moments of the night.

"Frankly, I think we could use a little bit more of that sense of family in the NFL today," DeBartolo said. "I think we could use a little bit more of that sense of duty to one another and that sense of responsibility for one another. I know that's what my good friend the commissioner and the players union desperately want and are trying to do today.

"Make no mistake, history has its eyes on all of us right now. It's about the respect and gratitude we feel for these athletes who have given their all to this game. We've got to do all we can to look after one another and take care of one another, not just when the uniform is on, but when the uniform comes off, too."

On Sunday, Baker and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell took that duty seriously enough to risk alienating the paying customer and riling the legions of smartphone quarterbacks who incorrectly surmise that The Show Must Go On is a mantra that somehow equates to toughness.

As a certain frustrated but realistic Colts quarterback might tell those people: Tough luck.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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