Watching Roger's Game

With the start of another NFL season, fans have another opportunity to remember and forget what we need to remember and forget to enjoy Roger Goodell's game.
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Roger Goodell is not a good person. This is, of course, a very harsh accusation to make against another human being, but I’m comfortable with it. Goodell, in the course of doing his job as commissioner of the NFL, has proved as much repeatedly.

Fans who have not made it their business not-to-know about them are exhausted and saddened and aghast by the horrors that await NFL players later in life. This has been a long and painful summer in what has been an ugly half-decade for the sport on this front. The crisis became increasingly inescapable when Goodell reportedly directly pressured ESPN president John Skipper to pull his network out of a concussion documentary collaboration with PBS and was not in the least resolved by last week’s settlement in the class action lawsuit brought by 4,500 retired players against the league in which they suffered serious neurological trauma.

But one particular passage on the subject stood out as a symbol for why we should be cynical about what is said next about helmet technology and a commitment to player safety—after last week’s settlement, Alan Schwarz wrote about the lead-up in the New York Times:

An outside study tying retired players’ concussions to depression later in life was called “virtually worthless” by an N.F.L. committee member. Amid reports that N.F.L. retirees were increasingly found to have dementia, an N.F.L. spokesman denied any connection to football by saying dementia “affects many elderly people.”  After the deceased lineman Justin Strzelczyk was found to have had C.T.E., Commissioner Roger Goodell said there was no proof the damage resulted from football. Strzelczyk “may have had a concussion swimming,” Goodell said.

The N.F.L.’s denials of outside evidence reached what many considered the absurd in September 2009, when The Times made public a University of Michigan study, commissioned by the N.F.L., that found that retired players of various ages had been found to have dementia at 5 to 19 times the national rate. The N.F.L. immediately distanced itself from the finding, and its committee’s co-chairman Ira Casson said, “What I take from this report is, there’s a need for further studies.” What ultimately forced the league to change its approach was an embarrassing Congressional hearing during which Goodell struggled to defend the N.F.L.’s behavior. A California representative bluntly told Goodell that his league resembled the tobacco industry.

Goodell's cringeworthy cynicism extends beyond issues of player safety. After the Redskins name was deemed "racist" and "derogatory" on the House of Representatives floor, the Commissioner had the nerve to write that the name, whose offensiveness is on par with any other slur in the language, in fact  represented "a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context " and that it is a "unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect."

None of this is getting any better. Earlier this offseason, Pilot Flying J, whose CEO is new Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, headquarters was raided by the FBI. In a 158-page affidavit (broken down in thorough detail here) it was alleged that the gas station chain systematically shortchanged high volume trucking customers, who were deemed to be too unsophisticated to notice, out of fuel rebates over a substantial period of time. The fraud could very well have totaled over $100 million and the feds believe that Haslam was aware of his company's widespread theft.

Goodell, obviously outraged over this embarrassment and eager to defend The Shield, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that "Jimmy Haslam is a man of great integrity. We're proud to have him as an owner in the NFL and think he's going to be a great owner for the Cleveland Browns and their fans here. He's as disappointed as anybody in what happened at Pilot J and he's working hard to fix it and correct those issues, both from a structural standpoint and to make amends."

These pro-management missives are even more unnerving when taken in contrast with the paternalistic ship Roger Goodell runs with players, who, for example, are inconsistently fined for behavior that include legal hits and wearing discordant shoes. A flagship incident of the double standard that exists between labor and management is the case of Terrelle Pryor. Pryor, as you may recall, was suspended the first five games of his NFL career in 2011 as a carryover from the NCAA infractions in which he dared exchange his personal memorabilia for free tattoos.

"Based on Mr. Pryor's actions, I believe it is a fair conclusion that he intentionally took steps to ensure that he would be declared ineligible for further college play and would be able to enter the NFL via the Supplemental Draft," Goodell said in a statement. "Taken as a whole, I found that this conduct was tantamount to a deliberate manipulation of our eligibility rules in a way that distorts the underlying principles and calls into question the integrity of those rules." You already know how harshly the League has punished coaches like Pete Carroll and Chip Kelly for their violations of NCAA rules at their previous college gigs.

These are just issues from this offseason—they don't even begin to scratch the surface of last season's Bountygate debacle in which Goodell's former boss Paul Tagliabue reversed the commissioner's discipline or the referee lockout, which risked player health and compromised the League's product for three weeks on account of, as Tommy Craggs wrote, bullshit ideological purity. And, despite wearing pink jerseys for a month of the season in a big dog and pony show, the NFL has donated just $1 million per year (2011 revenue was $9.5 billion) to breast cancer research.

 

It’s maybe churlish to criticize Goodell as a gutless hatchet man for the NFL’s owners, when that is more or less his job. But how good he is at it is indeed an unseemly, unpleasant thing. How consistently bad he is at enforcing any sort of responsibility on the game’s least responsible people and most reprehensible aspects—and how vigorous he is at enforcing arbitrary, made-for-TV discipline on the players themselves—might just be Goodell doing his job. But it doesn’t make it any easier to justify watching the NFL. Which, of course, is something I enjoy doing.

***

Watching the  NFL has been one of my favorite things to do for going on a decade, which is both queasy—because, in writing as much, I’m copping to enjoying humans mortgage their future lives for my afternoon entertainment—and not at all uncommon. That the leadership presiding over this slow motion ethical catastrophe is objectively unconcerned beyond the extent to which it compromises future profits doesn’t make things any easier to explain or accept.

It’s not just me. At Grantland last week, Andrew Sharp grappled with similar issues of reconciling his love for football with his petrifying knowledge of the NFL's bodily danger and ruthless profit-seeking leadership. Ultimately, he noted the positive impact football has had on the lives of players like Curtis Martin, Ed Reed, and Tyrann Matthieu:

This is where you see a gray area. Maybe we're complicit in all this, but maybe not. I have no idea whether these guys should play football, but I'm not going to be the paternalistic dipshit who says we need to boycott football to save Ed Reed from himself. There are hundreds of others like Reed who aren't Roger Goodell or the owners raking in billions. They're just the ones who understand this sport and the price that comes with it more than we ever will, still loving it more than most of us have ever loved anything. There is a real gray area, if you're looking for ways to make yourself feel better.

In the end, as Nucky Thompson notes in Boardwalk Empire, we all have to decide how much sin we are willing to live with. As American consumers, we are comfortable with plenty of it. Our clothing and electronics are put together amidst inhumane working conditions. Our factory-farming methods are detestable. We are destroying the Earth's ecosystem. Every choice we make as consumers has an invisible but undeniable human cost on the other end. We don’t stop consuming, but we might as well admit as much.

In all likelihood, the NFL is not run any more or less ruthlessly than other large corporation. There is a certain combination of vanity and sociopathy that exists in, and perhaps helps create, elites like Roger Goodell, and we might as well not be surprised when they wield their power accordingly. I'm acutely aware of everything horrible about the NFL, like anyone else who cares to know.

And yet, despite all this, there is a 157% chance that I will tune in this Sunday and watch football from dawn till dusk, and be ecstatic to do it after seven-and-a-half months without. I don’t know how long the feeling will last. I don’t know whether the real and reasonable revulsion at how the NFL does what it does will, when it arrives, represent me remembering or forgetting what matters most.


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