After eight months of what might be the silliest sports controversy ever taken seriously, an absurd amount of energy and brain power and billable hours devoted to an unnecessary and misrepresented investigation that never proved a thing, finally, like a glass of fresh spring water in the desert, we have a respite of common sense.
No, a human federal judge actually had to say, you cannot suspend a football player for a quarter of the season after failing to prove he broke a rule punishable by a $25,000 fine.
So New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady can play in the season opener. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is (again) shown to be power-drunk and at best only vaguely familiar with fairness. And a sports-media industry that thrives on this sort of overextended and contrived seriousness will wait for the next story. Shouldn’t take long.
The ridiculous waste of energy and oxygen that’s come to be known as Deflategate should be remembered as the quintessential example of the NFL’s arrogance working against it. But if recent trends hold, there are plenty more examples on the way.
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Goodell, the pseudo-politician who looks strong in a suit, serves at the whim and direction of the NFL’s owners. Those men — the owners — are the ones with the real power in all of this. They nodded their heads as this was portrayed as Goodell’s fight, even as a combination of hubris and delusion led him 23 exits past common sense.
This was originally about the air pressure of footballs. An investigation proved nothing. Didn’t prove the Patriots intentionally deflated footballs, and certainly didn’t prove the Patriots intentionally deflated footballs by more than a small fraction.
Didn’t prove Brady knew or approved of footballs being deflated, and certainly didn’t prove that any of this was important enough to blow right by the collectively bargained fine of $25,000 in favor of a $1 million penalty, lost draft picks and a four-game suspension.
This story has taken so many nonsensical turns, not the least of which was Goodell making this about Brady destroying a cell phone when the investigation paid for by the league stated the cell phone was not needed.
Nonsensical turns are better than intentionally and maliciously misrepresenting another man’s testimony, however, which is what Goodell was shown to do when Brady’s testimony was leaked.
Goodell has done the impossible here, which is to turn Robert Kraft (a billionaire and one of the most influential men in professional sports) and Brady (a wealthy four-time Super Bowl champion whose supermodel wife is even wealthier than he is) into victims.
Smart people have been calling for Goodell’s job for some time, and that momentum is picking up and figures to continue. There is a strong case, of course, for his ouster. Under Goodell’s watch, the NFL has been embarrassed by scandal after scandal and fairly presented as callously greedy even by the standards of major bottom-line corporations.
The league has long made up its own rules and given everyone else two options: go along, or buzz off.
The result has been a lot of people going along, because whenever scandal hits, eventually there’s another weekend of games and monster television ratings and programming immune to the time-shifting and cord-cutting that’s threatening the rest of the TV industry.
Goodell and the league have thus remained untouchable, but that can’t continue in perpetuity, especially for the commissioner.
So the demands that Goodell be fired will pick up in quantity, volume and credibility, but even if he is replaced the problem won’t be solved. Hiring a new commissioner without substantial change in the NFL’s operations and priorities would be like a drunk buying a new car without going through rehab.
Goodell serves at the owners’ whim. The owners hand-picked him and have paid a fortune for him to do their bidding. He often describes his job as protecting the shield, but it is more accurate to say he is a well-paid shield to take the arrows that otherwise would be hitting the owners. And in that way, his tenure has been a wild and complete success.
Revenues continue to grow and any ugliness that seeps from the sausage factory is blamed on Goodell. That’s an easy, oversimplified and in many ways lazy narrative that’s been built by too many of us in the media.
Goodell doesn’t have a speck of power that the owners have not given him, and for too long those owners have prioritized flexing that power over their league’s long-term health and image. None of Goodell’s missteps have affected the league’s revenue, which is what the owners care most about.
But that revenue is more dictated by factors out of the owners’ control — a changing TV industry that prioritizes live sports, modern America’s shortening attention span and football’s irresistible match of violence and gambling — than anything the league has done. They are stuck in something like a false echo chamber, then, confusing their mismanagement for fortunate circumstance in escalating revenues.
By the letter of the collective-bargaining agreement between the league and players, Goodell had every right to punish Brady and the Patriots however he saw fit. He also had every right to be the one to hear the appeal.
It is a fantastically unfair system that should never have existed, but the NFL has long tilted the rules in its favor. That a federal judge — after pleading with each party to settle this silliness on their own — overturned this system is a major blow to Goodell and a much-welcomed victory for common sense.
It may, eventually and justifiably, cost Goodell his job. But that won’t matter unless the wealthy and often out-of-touch men who would choose and pay the next commissioner make some long overdue changes to help the NFL regain credibility.