This is written as all of New England, with anxiety bearing on the unbearable, awaits the impending resolution of “Deflategate,” the first week of September having arrived and with it the first tentative steps into the NFL’s raging gauntlet leading to Soupey Sunday in faraway February being about to be taken with the usual belligerence and bombast, of course.
It seems inconceivable that this bloody fiasco can be stretched any further. On the other hand, everything about it has been fairly inconceivable from the get-go. So why not?
But let’s, for the sake of discussion, assume it has been resolved at last and move on to what seem to me much larger questions that have to do with such indignities as may have been visited upon your favorite football team, let alone wounds to the vanity of your favorite quarterback. Such questions including:
How do you control this increasingly lawless game? How do you police its voracious personnel? How do you maintain levels of dignity and sportsmanship justifying the acclaim and riches so breezily commanded? How do you establish proper levels of mayhem lest the game spiral further into a kind of gladiatorial madness? How do you compensate the victims of its inherent excesses and protect many more from becoming victims? How do you keep professional football, the widely alleged national pastime, from destroying itself and taking down with it the sport as it subsists with relatively more civility at lesser levels.
Because the game of football, you see, is in big trouble and the likes of “Deflategate,” for all of its bogus sound and fury, will in the end prove to be little more than a nettlesome bug bite.
Like it or not, all this “stuff” is the domain of the NFL’s commissioner and the complicated bureaucracy over which he, for better or worse, presides. It’s hardly a perfect system any more than the one by which the entire country is governed may be. But it’s the best that we’ve got and maybe even the best of a bad lot, to twist conveniently one of Churchill’s more provocative asides.
We risk it at our peril. And, it seems to me, that’s precisely what’s happened. At a time when a strong commissioner may be more needed than ever, the sitting one has been reduced to a caricature. Not that “Deflategate” has accomplished that all by itself. Far from it! It’s a long train of abuses and failings that have led to this messy moment. Still, it’s the ultimate irony of this controversy - inspired by a grievance so petty it borders on the preposterous - that it may prove to have been the straw that broke the commissioner’s back.
Sweepingly branded en route as a “despot’ and an “idiot,” Roger Goodell emerges shaken and maybe permanently damaged. Is Goodell a despot? Why of course, old Sport. It’s what the job is all about. It’s required. It’s what the owners who hire and fire commissioners absolutely demand, no matter the game.
In his heart of hearts, Kennesaw Landis, baseball’s legendary original monarch, was as despotic as any old-time European prince weaned on deep devotion to divine rights ever dared to be. For an example of more contemporary iron-handed sporting tyrants, try the iron-willed autocrat currently in charge of the National Hockey League, or Major League Baseball’s recently retired ex-commissioner. All sporting commissioners are despots by definition. Although some - and there’ve been a notable few - can be of the benevolent stripe.
Goodell is a despot and a corporate schemer, and a manipulator. But is he also an “idiot”? Don’t be ridiculous. He may not be as clever as Pete Rozelle or as noble and wise as the immortal Bert Bell or even as crafty as his predecessor and mentor, Paul Tagliabue. But Goodell is able enough, bright enough, and every bit as competent as the rump court of owners who form the ultimate authority allows him to be. In all games, commissioners are as strong as the owners permit. Some times less strong, but never more so.
Perplexing to me is the perception - -widely asserted these past six-seven months in the media - that Goodell has done a poor job policing his turbulent fiefdom. I don’t see that. He may have stumbled here and there, variously over-reached or under-reached, but only by small degrees. Overall, his record seems acceptable. Again, it needs be understood he’s done what owners wish him to do.
Some major disciplinary rulings:
• Such few performance enhancing drug violators as he has nailed, he has hit hard. The Bengals’ Josh Gordon and LaRon Landry, ex of the Colts, both suspended for more than half a season, are recent examples. But overall, the NFL’s drug enforcement policy remains ludicrously lax because that’s precisely what the owners insist upon. They have no interest in getting as tough as baseball has been, nor has the public demanded it be. Goodell hasn’t done enough to change their minds.
• On issues of outrageous personal conduct, he has tried hard. He benched Adrian Peterson a whole season for allegedly abusing his son only to have a judge over-rule him. He suspended another all-star, Ben Roethlisberger, six games for a sexual assault in a nightclub. He tried to ban Greg Hardy, now of the Cowboys, 10 games for domestic abuse but the courts let him loose too. Another Cowboy, Josh Bent, got 10 games for being DUI in the accidental driving-death of a teammate.
• What’s most remembered, however, is the case he booted. His original censure of the Ravens’ Ray Rice for assaulting his fiancée was way off base and further compounded but Goodell’s own dumb fibs. But when he tried to rectify the blunder, the courts stepped in and thwarted him again. Critics want the courts to have more authority and the commissioner less. Would that improve the situation? One wonders.
• On team violations, Goodell’s maiden voyage and the one seemingly heavily influencing him down to this hour is the “Spygate” ruling against Bill Belichick and the Patriots in 2007. The combination of fines and draft picks surrendered remains in the opinion of many observers too light a censure and thereby a lesson from which Belichick’s Patriots learned nothing. Is that the attitude that’s driven the over-reach on “Deflategate?” Could be! The better question may be, “Is that unreasonable”?
• Basic decorum, and at least the pretense of fair play, have been important to Goodell. He has censured the Falcons for pumping up audio systems to confuse opponents, the Browns for inappropriately texting from the press box to the sidelines, the Vikings for heating up their footballs; and on that one, he warned all the teams that monkeying with the game balls would not be tolerated and his advisory to all teams was posted weeks before “Deflategate.”
• He has been cheered when he fined an all-star lineman a half-million bucks for unnecessary roughness and docked teams draft picks for procedural irregularities. No one complained when he slammed the Dolphins for allowing bullying in the locker room; nor did anyone complain about the investigative performance of the attorney Ted Wells, lead litigator in that case also.
And certainly no one complained when he lambasted the New Orleans Saints for “Bounty-Gate” in 2011 in a stiff ruling that ended the careers of three assistant coaches, crippled the careers of four players, and sidelined head coach Sean Payton one full season even though Payton was not believed to have orchestrated the wrongdoing.
Overall, it seems to me, that save for the Rice blunder, Goodell’s performance in disciplinary matters compares reasonably with that of other czars in other sports in this age wherein erratic behavior by athletes has become an increasingly serious issue. Although I wouldn’t argue any of them has done enough.
And mind you further, I’m not arguing that tampering with the football and conniving however shamelessly to cover up that indiscretion is comparable to conspiring to deliberately maim opponents. So please don’t go there. Am only suggesting that in his rulings Goodell has been reasonably consistent - neither too rough, nor too soft - and hardly motivated by such ulterior motives as revenge or bias in other cases he’s handled.
So how is “Deflategate” any different?