Roger Goodell vs. Tom Brady: The Ultimate Revenge-of-Mediocrity Story

The NFL Commissioner and the league's most marketable player meet in a New York courtroom Wednesday, to decide…something?

Roger Goodell and Tom Brady Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty; Tom Pennington/Getty

There are countless ways to become famous in America. You can be born beautiful, run really fast in a straight line, revolutionize morning radio or break backboards with monster dunks. You can land a plane in the Hudson River. You can star in True Detective and spend the next year making whacked-out Lincoln commercials. There's no magic formula for celebrity. You just have to do something.

Then there's Roger Goodell.

The Commissioner of the NFL, who goes to court today in a historic battle against Patriots quarterback and alleged ball-deflation conspirator Tom Brady, might be the most famous person in America who's never actually done anything.

When Goodell assumed the job of NFL Commissioner in 2006, the league was exploding in popularity. It was the ultimate golden-goose business; a wildly popular sport that tens of millions would follow even if you told them watching the games caused bowel cancer. All the owners needed a new frontman to do to keep the cash flowing was absolutely nothing. So to do nothing, they picked just the right man.  

Everything about Roger Goodell is average. His face doesn't have a single distinguishing feature. Even other nondescript white guys would have trouble picking him out in a police lineup. He's been on TV as much as anyone in sports in recent years, but not even the most dedicated football fan can remember anything he's actually said.

His speech is nasal and slow. His intellect rates a consistent C/C-minus. He went to Washington & Jefferson College, a school near Pittsburgh whose fight song is sung to the tune of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" and makes fun of a Presbyterian seminary for women. To paraphrase the Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol: everybody has something, but Roger Goodell has nothing.

Goodell has a job that causes him to be surrounded by genetic lottery winners, players whose extraordinary talents Americans pay $10 billion a year to watch. For most human beings this would be humbling. But Goodell decided fairly quickly after taking the job that what the league needed was not more dazzling on-field play, but more Roger Goodell. He started looking for ways to inject himself into the game. He was like the bozo producer on a movie shoot who keeps asking the director to write cameos for him into the script.

He started small, dropping suspensions on not-quite-stars with arrest issues like "Pacman" Jones and the late Chris Henry. The sports media mostly cheered. Many had long begged for the kind of iron-hand discipline that former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, a lawyer and probable secret believer in civil rights, had refused to wield.

"Tagliabue is a good man," wrote ESPN's Len Pasquarelli in 2007, "but he also is an attorney and often fretted more over due process than enunciating a can-do policy of punishment."

Goodell was different, "a veritable hanging judge," Pasquarelli wrote. "Good for him."

The hangman must have loved all of these bons mots (reporters also called him "sheriff" and the "ginger hammer"), because he quickly transformed the humdrum process of handing down player suspensions. Like the draft and the combine, he took an obscure league ritual and turned it into destination television.

If and when democracy collapses under the upcoming Trump administration, Goodell's discipline process is what the criminal justice system will look like: secret evidence, double-jeopardy prosecutions, judges serving as prosecutors and vice versa, no right against self-incrimination, no right to face accusers, ex post facto lawmaking, conviction by inference, etc.

Of course it's hard to get worked up about any of this, because the "crimes" Goodell punishes involve things like leaking air out of footballs. But that's what makes all this so absurd. It's like a Poconos-comedy version of Stalinism.

The arc of the "sheriff's" discipline cases is almost always the same. A prominent player, coach or team gets in the soup. Goodell steps in and promises justice. Salacious details are leaked to the media; the player is handed a maximum or beyond-maximum punishment; moralizing sportswriters rush to applaud the "tough" decision.

When the accused pursues his appeal, he discovers he's not entitled to find out what the charges actually are, what evidence the league has or who's testifying against him. Moreover, as the appeal date gets closer, the charges may change. The player might be told that he is accused of non-cooperation and/or lying. He and his lawyers soon discover that they're being asked to prove a negative. Can you demonstrate you've cooperated fully? If the commissioner finds you "not credible," what's the defense against that?

The moving-target prosecution works. Look at the New Orleans Saints. In June of 2012, Goodell's office leaked a document to Jason Cole of Yahoo! that purported to show a "ledger" of payments made to Saints team members for hits that injured opposing players.

The story was amazingly specific, citing a game against the Buffalo Bills in 2009 in which three players were paid $1,000 apiece for hits that led to players being "carted off" the field.

But it later came out that of the four Bills players injured in that game, three played defense, making it impossible for Saints defensive players to have been guilty. So Cole's league source "corrected" the leak, saying that the game in question was actually a November 2009 contest against the Panthers.

But in that game, only one Panthers player was injured, a linebacker who fell down untouched while backpedaling. The story has never been retracted.

The league leaked all sorts of bits and pieces of evidence against the Saints. Much of it turned out to be not true, or not exactly true. The league, for instance, said that linebacker Jonathan Vilma put $10,000 on a table before a game, offering it to any teammate who would knock out Brett Favre. But it's not clear that actually happened.

The league said another player, Anthony Hargrove, was caught on video asking for money for hitting Favre. Goodell's office even issued the video. But it wasn't clear in the end that Hargrove actually said anything incriminating, or why the NFL was so sure he had.

By the time all of this got sorted out in the media, the players' suspensions were being upheld in a ruling that didn't mention the ledger and only said "a Saints player" was heard saying stuff on video, and mostly just slammed them all for refusing to admit guilt.

Goodell pulled the same Whac-A-Mole tactic with Ray Rice. In that case, Goodell first imposed a two-game ban on the Ravens star for domestic abuse. But after a horrifying video of Rice's conduct hit the news, the commissioner re-thought his decision. He decided to impose an indefinite ban under a new domestic violence policy that he would apply retroactively, claiming that Rice had lied to him about the extent of his conduct, constituting a new offense.

A federal judge disagreed, ruling that Goodell himself had lied about being misled. The icy judicial ruling expressly prohibited the league from ever again retroactively applying new conduct policies.

But just two weeks later, Goodell whipped out his cojones and repeated the same trick with Vikings star Adrian Peterson. He claimed Peterson's failure to show remorse for striking his child constituted a new violation, even though he committed the actual abuse under the old policy.

A weary court system eventually overturned Goodell again, but by then the league had leapfrogged from Rice to Peterson to the next target: Brady.

"Deflategate" is like a greatest hits collects of all of Goodell's best gags. There's the prominent leak of false info, this time to Chris Mortensen at ESPN (who said 11 of 12 Patriots footballs were underinflated by 2 PSI) instead of Jason Cole. There's the goalpost-moving decision to hammer Brady for non-cooperation once the furor over the original deflation charges waned. And there was the refusal to let Brady see the evidence against him, in this case hiding it behind the attorney-client privilege Goodell claimed he enjoyed with his "independent" investigator, Ted Wells.

Now it's the first week of the 2015 preseason, and instead of talking about football, the entire country is about to tune in to a WWE-style reputational death-match that pits Brady, the game's biggest star, against Roger Goodell, the most uninteresting man in America.

If Goodell wins this cage fight against the glamor-boy quarterback, it will be the ultimate revenge-of-mediocrity story. Antonio Salieri is probably history's most famous mediocrity, but Salieri at least wrote music. In fact, you couldn't have F. Murray Abraham play Goodell, because F. Murray Abraham is too interesting.

If Goodell wins this court battle, sports pundits will line up to talk about what a "brilliant" PR strategist Goodell is, how he's "masterfully" scored a public relations "knockout" of the once-iconic Brady.

Except this Iago-esque campaign of diabolical leaks, secret indictments and double punishments has been conducted against his most marketable player for…why exactly? What other business would spend such an awesome amount of time, money, and most of all cunning undermining its key employees?

Can you imagine Adam Silver poring through the fine print of the NBA's collective bargaining agreement in search of a way to leak Kevin Durant's family emails? Or pursuing a scorched-earth prosecution of LeBron James over a shoelace violation?

It's like concocting a brilliant plan to break into a supermax prison. Hey, you made it, congratulations, that's a hell of a tunnel you built there. Now what was the point again?

Whether you think Tom Brady is guilty or not (and as a Patriots fan I have my own obvious, and probably laughable, opinion) is sort of irrelevant by now. If it hadn't been Brady, it would have been someone else.

The drama that's kicking off in New York this week is really all about Roger Goodell, who's been moving toward this moment for years. The commissioner is very close to a great career triumph. It'll be a stupid, self-defeating, pointless triumph, but a triumph nonetheless. And then we'll all go back to wondering what the hell this was about.