Does the NFL have integrity?
A stained commissioner will soon hear the appeal of a stained champion after the league hit the New England Patriots with a Lifetime Achievement Award For Cheating over a random rule none of us even knew was a rule.
Never mind that “violent bloodsport” and “integrity” don’t usually have any great need to coexist … unless you require corporate sponsors to believe your popular product is purer than it actually is.
And never mind that the two stories that engulfed the sport before this one — Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson — left us all wondering whether we literally had to hide the women and children.
And never mind that it is pretty hard to claim and protect integrity when one NFL owner is paying a $92 million settlement to truckers to make a federal fraud indictment vanish … and another owner insists on keeping a racist slur as his team’s nickname … and another owner is getting arrested with a briefcase full of pills and $29,000 cash … and another owner is allegedly being sextorted for Internet photos … and all the owners are paying a $765 million settlement to try and get their concussed former employees to go away while the current bigger-stronger-faster employees may or may not be tilting the allegedly even playing field with human-growth hormone.
Regardless, commissioner Roger Goodell’s campaign platform has largely been about building and protecting integrity. He is a glorified PR agent this way, making $44 million a year, earning more by a lot since 2007 than any of the league’s quarterbacks, and he does this as a shield for The Shield. He is a piñata in protecting and enforcing the desires of his owners, again and again taking the beating alone as candy continues to spill all over the NFL’s floor.
Goodell came to fame punishing and over-punishing those who dared to stain the league’s image. That the most punitive commissioner in the history of games stained it himself, ironically enough, by handling the Rice case too leniently, ironically enough, is a testament to the dangers of appointing yourself moral authority over something inherently impure.
That his random punishment system, making up the rules as he goes, keeps negative stories in the news cycle longer than normal as we debate and await over-punishment is not great for that image and integrity he’s trying so zealously to protect. We don’t do this in other sports with more uniform penalty codes and less off-field integrity policing, arguing for weeks and months what a penalty should be because we have no earthly idea what it will be. So, in the negative-news cycle at least, Goodell somehow makes the league’s image worse while trying to make it better, which is awfully clumsy work by someone who has put himself in charge of public relations.
But what do you do, as a league, when you don’t actually have as much integrity as you badly wish for others to believe you have? You punish and over-punish in protection of that integrity you don’t have to give the illusion that you have it to protect.
So now you have a commissioner who lacks credibility hearing the appeal of a champion organization that lacks credibility. The league’s independent investigator wrote 243 pages worth of incrimination to protect the integrity of its game, and the Patriots filed a lawyerly 19,600-word rebuttal to protect their integrity, and none of us still really understands empirically how much of an advantage was actually gained by breaking a random rule none of us knew was a rule. And the independent investigator then had to do a conference call to protect his independence and his 243 pages because nobody trusts anybody in this transaction. It’s like watching the ending of The Departed.
Just what you got into sports for, right? Reading. Lawyers. Chemists. PSI. Ideal Gas Law. This while Aaron Rodgers says, yeah, he liked to overinflate footballs because, well, he wants you to know he could throw for 400 yards and four touchdowns with a beach ball.
You know when Goodell went from very popular to very unpopular? There was a tipping point. He entered to much applause as the ironfisted emperor because America tends to love the punisher platform, but it all changed when he investigated the Saints the way he has the Patriots. Former and current players shrugged off the New Orleans bounty scandal, because that kind of thing was so common in their barbaric game, but Goodell The Outsider and Overseer had to protect an image and integrity and, with concussions in the news, player health. So he did his move. He over-punished. And all his decisions were overturned on appeal by anyone who fought them. Right then, the employees felt emboldened to trash their own commissioner publicly, and have done so since.
Which means the commissioner has, with the Saints case and the botched Rice case, more failed investigations on his résumé than the Patriots have alleged cheating on theirs. It is fairly and literally incredible, putting him in charge of the credibility of others given his present credibility predicament. It’s like seeing the courtroom judge banging a gavel while wearing an orange jumpsuit and shackles.
Better to just imagine this entire Patriots “scandal” as a professional wrestling match. Tom Brady vs. Roger Goodell. The Golden Boy vs. The OverPunisher. A fight for the ages, a fight for INTEGRITY! The media and fans howl with bloodlust outside the ring, making so much noise, screaming “Liar!” and “Cheater!” The script’s story line is so exciting, sports being soap opera for males, that you hardly notice that the fight for integrity is all kinds of fake. And, oh yeah, nobody really gets too harmed here, either, and the arena always remains full.
The Patriots mess hasn’t been bad for the NFL in any empirical way. There won’t be a single dollar or single fan lost. The NFL’s slow-period offseason just stole the sports-news cycle from the playoffs of basketball and hockey with soap-opera nonsense. There has been damage to Brady’s public persona, yes, but that’s only if you believe in the mythology of sports that makes athletes heroes instead of humans. And the Patriots, well, we already knew they were dark-alley junkies about competition and loopholes. What’s their quarterback getting four games compared with their quarterback getting four trophies?
There’s something larger here, though, that requires monitoring once we get past the noisy scandal du jour. Goodell has more reasons than ever to over-punish now. Despite his own scandal and maybe because of it, he’s incentivized now to over-punish in protection of his own integrity and his own public relations and his own rear end. And he can make the players’ union — his partners, mind you, the partners he keeps trampling — look like the bad guys for fighting on behalf of terrible martyrs in appeal. The union seems to be questioning and appealing everything he is doing now, but it isn’t fighting on behalf of rule-breakers and cheaters and criminals; the union is fighting for a uniform set of rules collectively bargained with a commissioner whose punishment system isn’t credible or consistent or negotiated with his partners.
Goodell somehow emerged from a Rice mess that caused the league all manner of shame to basically announce that he had appointed himself societal leader on domestic abuse — from calls for his resignation to more power to punish, in other words. He went from randomly making up a two-game penalty for Rice to randomly making up a 10-game penalty for Greg Hardy that the players’ union has to appeal because, well, he’s totally making it up as he goes along.
Who cares, right? Hardy did horrible things and deserves huge punishment. But here’s where you might want to be careful with that: Sometimes we hate the crime so much that we don’t mind or don’t notice who is doing the punishing and how. When 9-11 happens, we don’t mind as much that the police profile or the government tramples civil rights. When pedophilia happens, we don’t mind so much that the NCAA steps outside of its jurisdiction to trample Penn State and don’t notice when the NCAA has to reduce all those penalties afterward because of their unfairness. Most people don’t want the government and NCAA or this NFL commissioner having more power under normal circumstances, but some crimes and fear bring applause for the powerful getting more power even if they can’t be trusted with that power.
Goodell granted yet more power to punish after bungling the Rice mess so badly that an arbitrator ruled in favor of Rice’s reinstatement?
That doesn’t happen in a workplace of integrity.
It only happens in a workplace interested in protecting the illusion of it.