Whoever the wise guy was that first referred to the NFL as the “National Felons League” must be feeling pretty proud of himself these days — in a sad sort of way.

You see, it turns out he was right.

Oh, sure, there's plenty of great guys playing pro football, good people who make good choices, set good examples and do a lot of good in our world today.

But now, more than ever before it seems, that massive money-making machine more commonly called the National Football League is brimming with enough bad characters to fill an entire prison cell block.

And when it comes to the NFL’s ever-increasing popularity, merchandise sales, attendance figures, soaring TV revenues and corporate sponsorships, it seems the NFL is coated with Teflon.

Nothing ever sticks to it.

Nope, it doesn’t seem to matter that former tight end Aaron Hernandez faces murder charges, or that high-profile players like Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, two of the league’s top running backs, have been benched by some revolting off-the-field incidents.

Rice committed domestic violence and was subsequently suspended after round-housing his future wife and rendering her unconscious in a hotel elevator. The word “alleged” need not be attached to this crime, either, since a surveillance video clearly shows Rice’s one-punch knockout in all its disgusting glory.

Peterson was indicted on felony child abuse charges after allegedly beating his young son with a stick, administering his brand of discipline and “tough love” so severely that the child bled and is now physically scarred — and undoubtedly emotionally as well.

Rice and Peterson might be two of the bigger-named players who have ruined their reputations, and possibly their careers, by breaking the law. But they’re far from the only ones in the NFL who’ve been in the news for a variety of abhorrent behavior.

Domestic violence seems to be the crime of choice for many NFL players these days. In a league where the use of marijuana and driving under the influence has become almost commonplace, athletes now seem to have stepped their game up (or down), so to speak, to a whole ’nother level of repulsive criminal activity.

For too long, the NFL seemed to be a place where, if an athlete could throw, catch or run with a football, or stop somebody else from doing the same, the league seemed all too willing to turn its head the other way when embarrassing off-the-field issues arose.

Now those issues have become far too common, and players getting arrested for various crimes has become an almost daily occurrence anymore.

Of course they say that professional sports leagues are simply a reflection of society’s ills, and that’s certainly true when it comes to the NFL.

Harsher penalties in the form of lengthy suspensions without pay, and possibly even lifetime bans, would seem to be the only way some of these classless millionaires might be forced to listen up and pay attention. A no-tolerance policy regarding such crimes must be enforced at all costs — even if it means that teams might lose on the field and, heaven forbid, at the gate.

But wait, that won’t ever happen, will it? No, the NFL will continue to crank out megamillion-dollar deals for players; team values have never been higher, and U.S. sports fans still flock to stadiums, buy jerseys, hats and all other sorts of memorabilia and souvenirs, and are glued to their TV sets every week watching games.

It seems our society just can’t get enough of the National Felons League, no matter how despicable some of the athletes’ actions might be (and occasionally those of their owners, too).

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And that’s a sad commentary on us as sports fans, myself included, who should find something else to watch, attend or follow — but hey, we just love some good ol’ NFL.

If we cared enough about where this mess is headed, fans would stop buying tickets to games, stop buying NFL-related merchandise, stop watching the games on television. But none of those things will happen, and the National Felons League will continue on its merry way.

Shame on those of us who continue to support the NFL. Instead of using our voice to help the league find a solution to this growing problem, sadly, we will continue to help perpetuate it.

EMAIL: rhollis@desnews.com

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