Believe it or not, Deflategate—or whatever contrived name you want to attach to public outrage at under-inflation of footballs by the recent Super Bowl champions the New England Patriots—has been the best thing to happen to the NFL in quite some time. This issue exists solely within the sport, meaning Commissioner Roger Goodell can pass judgment on it knowing full well that it is neither a crime nor catastrophe. He can approach this issue as he sees fit—and without the extreme public pressure he has recently become accustomed to in the wake of the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson scandals.
Of course Goodell and the league have ridden this wave of good luck, taking two weeks and counting to maximize a spectacle over which they have complete control, as it speaks to the immorality and deviousness of a specific team and not the league itself. In the coverage of Sunday’s Super Bowl, the talking heads mentioned the circus around eleven sub-optimally swollen leather vessels a whole lot more than the actually damning issues of concussions and domestic violence—two problems that, this past year, have finally disrupted the league’s cozy protective sphere in causing widespread criticism and legal ramifications. Patriots Coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Craft, basking in the euphoric haze of Championship glory, can expect a slap on the wrist from Commissioner Roger Goodell before he gladly hands them the millions of dollars generated by the Super Bowl.
The NFL, you see, is not interested in getting mixed up in matters that extend beyond the field of play. Such matters include Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)—a disease that results from repetitive head trauma and that 76 of 79 recently deceased football players tested positive for—and the scourge of domestic abuse currently tearing through the league. In spite of the fact that he runs the most popular sports institution in the States, and one that is a pillar of American culture, Goodell is a failed moral compass, unable to understand the gravity of the problems the league faces and largely unwilling to exchange profits for progress.
Elected by the 32 NFL owners to serve their interests, Goodell is chiefly engaged in minting money for his electors and himself. Indeed, the league has become a marketing dynamo, pulling in $7 billion last year from its TV deals with ESPN, CBS, Fox, and NBC and pushing total profits to $10.5 billion. Oh, and the league is a non-profit, so it hasn’t paid federal income tax for 50 years, while receiving 4.7 billion tax dollars since 1997 to build new stadiums.
Goodell, for his part, has cashed in big time, as his salary has risen from a paltry $11.6 million in 2011 to a stunning $44.2 million in 2014. (For reference, the highest paid player in 2014 was Aaron Rodgers at $22 million.)
Indeed, concussions and domestic violence threaten to distract Goodell from the job he signed up for—namely making the NFL the Disneyland of American sports leagues, an institution that offers needed escape from the grind of life with a heaping dose of family fun on the side. Every Sunday, across America, families gather in front of flat screen TVs to watch late-capitalism’s stream of advertising consciousness. The latest Chevy Tahoe, Microsoft tablet, and images of massive men ramming their craniums together flit across LED displays while individuals lie back, recreating.
This is Goodell’s dream, a world where the NFL exists in its own bubble, unencumbered by that societal construction called reality. But, unfortunately, reality has arrived uninvited at the door of the NFL’s corporate monolith.
For a while now, the NFL has tried to model itself as an autonomous corporate and political entity that exists outside of the law. Goodell wants only the rules of football, those he both writes and enforces, to constitute the highest order while science, ethics, and law return to cozy domiciles within America. The league’s oligarchical governing structure puts the commissioner at the beck and call of the owners, and Goodell occupies a strange political space where he must govern the league but not anger his electors. His salary depends on how he augments profits year-to-year, so it is in his best interest to do everything in his power to rake in the money.
This is where the issues of CTE and domestic violence rear their ugly, deformed heads. The NFL is largely popular because of the brutality of, what Goodell calls, its “on field product.” Americans pay big money to watch our gladiatorial pastime—the average Super Bowl ticket went for $3,715— and Goodell knows that reducing the violence of the sport is dangerous for the collective pocketbook. Goodell worked hard to undermine studies on brain damage, paying for an independent study that refuted earlier findings that playing in the NFL causes CTE, and later feigning ignorance that repeated head smashings could possibly cause trouble. In spite of this, Goodell has recently put in place new tackling guidelines that make it illegal to hit a “defenseless” receiver’s helmet after a catch, along with stricter concussion protocols that make the game “safer.” These changes to the rulebook come not from a place of concern, but from overwhelming public pressure.
Of course, the very same media outlets that pay billions to broadcast games also cover the league. So it should be no surprise that the ever-articulate Ron Jaworski claimed during a mid-October Monday Night Football broadcast on ESPN that the league has never been safer. Concussions are notoriously difficult to diagnose, as symptoms vary both in quality and duration. The NFL’s concussion testing is not at all foolproof, so it should not surprise you, dear reader, that the NFL reported a 13 percent decrease in concussions from 2013 to 2014.
What is evident is that the NFL controls the media spin on at least ESPN, Fox, CBS, NBC, and of course its own NFL channel. If you govern media coverage, why not create a court system to streamline operations and create a fully enclosed institutional structure? The NFL has its own judiciary wing that independently handles domestic violence and other criminal cases, and also pays for scientific research on brain problems. As sports writer Jeb Lund recently put it, “the NFL’s inevitable trajectory [is] toward a vertically integrated entertainment-capital complex that also happens to include football.”
Goodell wants to make the NFL a landless political entity within which he can construct the league’s reality and act as overlord, answering only to the owners. That reality, if it were not for the irritating domestic violence arrests of 56 players since 2006, would include printing extra millions for the owners to add to their billions, maintaining those loyal corporate sponsorships, and continuing to let the game’s violence increase with the size and strength of the players.
While he has recently “cracked down” on Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson due to popular demand, those aforementioned 56 players were suspended for a total of 13 games between them.
Since Ray Rice knocked his fiancé out in an elevator, Roger Goodell has been pulled from his high horse into the muck. This issue probably would have fallen into the void of public consciousness if not for the surfacing of the now notorious video, whose brutality captured the public’s attention. Nothing from his economics studies will help him now, as he tries to save the league’s image while also functioning as a moral arbiter on the issue of domestic violence.
He is clearly either inept, sinister, or both, and his admission that he was wrong about originally suspending Rice for two games came with the caveat that he was grabbing more power. He changed the league’s domestic abuse policy that formerly reviewed crimes on a case-by-case basis, so that a second infraction now garners an indefinite ban. In doing so, he positioned himself as the keeper of justice. Of course, the player can apply for re-instatement after a year, and Goodell is the only person who determines whether or not to allow re-entry to the league. Josh Gordon, a receiver for the Cleveland Browns, just returned from an indefinite ban after a second positive test for marijuana. He was recently re-banned after testing positive for alcohol. So, in the twisted world of the NFL, which makes heaps of dough from beer sales, smoking and drinking are as light as domestic violence.
What was so interesting about Goodell’s response to the Rice scandal was his initial reluctance to act in opposition to domestic violence. Since the NFL has become a focal point in the national conversation on domestic abuse, Goodell has halfheartedly taken a stand. He instituted a feeble hour-long domestic violence training and education program that several anonymous players complained, “treat all [of us] as perpetrators.” What’s more, Goodell pledged $1 million to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a figure that is unimpressive at first and gets less so when you realize the Center exists in all 50 states. Some quick math shows that each state received a mere $20,000, or .00045 percent of Goodell’s yearly salary.
Goodell’s program of increased punishment for domestic violence cases treats the symptoms of a much wider, more dangerous issue. It must be said that the league itself trivializes the importance of women. There are no female coaches anywhere in the NFL, and the incessant focus on hiring the most attractive cheerleaders further treats women as mere ornaments in a man’s sphere. Add to that the drunken machismo of many fans and the rampant violence on the field, and you have a culture that caters to the most abhorrent, animalistic aspects of American sporting culture.
But of course this is all way too serious for good old Roger. That’s why he is thrilled to have the Super Bowl follow on the heels of Deflategate, an infraction solely in Goodell’s reality, a place where the public cannot throw its weight around in the same manner.
While Goodell and the NFL subject the public to the layered spectacle of the Super Bowl, with its prize-winning performers, outrageously priced seats, and $4.5 million thirty-second ad spots, the commissioner and the league are saying that everything is fine. The marvel of not only the game itself, but also of the pervasiveness of entertainment and consumption, distracts the viewer from the insidious cultural and physical violence the NFL perpetrates. Instead of acknowledging any problems, Goodell is content to fade into the background in Phoenix, letting the commentators he indirectly pays shower him with praise for orchestrating such an event. He prefers to exist in the shadows where he can construct the NFL’s alternate reality unhindered, all the while oiling the money machine to ensure it runs smoothly. Just don’t ask him to take a real stand about violence against women and brain-smushing pulverizings.
SAM BRESNICK B’15 prints extra millions to add to his billions.