When justifying the implementation of more stringent unsportsmanlike conduct penalties this season, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell claimed “we all have standards.” In his defense, he never specified whose standards those might be. Yet judging by the playground justice he’s doled out this season, that metric seems to be about as stringent as other similar gospel, including “I am rubber, you are glue” and “Whoever smelled it, dealt it.” Though to compare the NFL to a playground would admittedly be a knock to playgrounds given that playgrounds are still a little bit fun.
Is the league having fun? More than double the taunting violations in four weeks than in the entire 2015 season would say otherwise. Are the players? Odell Beckham Jr. definitely isn’t, telling ESPN’s Anita Marks in no uncertain terms just a day after the Vikings handed the Giants a 14-point loss that he “[isn’t] having fun anymore.” Roger Goodell doesn’t look like he’s had fun since 1979 so we’ll count him out, but is anyone else in and around the NFL having any fun yet? Am I? Are you?
In the four weeks since the start of the regular season, referees have been capriciously wielding the latest weapon in Goodell’s arsenal of maladaptive discipline – an ejection after two unsportsmanlike conduct calls in the same game, and a significant uptick on calls for taunting and touchdown celebrations. Antonio Brown’s joyous twerk in Week 1 cost him 15 yards and $12,154 (over $1,000 a cheek for anyone doing the math), and now the Steelers star has to write another check, this time for $24,309, after his “sexually suggestive” celebration dance during his team’s win against the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend. Josh Norman was allowed his Hunger Games impression once, but denied the sequel. Emmanuel Sanders almost lost the right to cartwheel. Beckham Jr. lost his quan because Twitter couldn’t drop his season-old beef with Norman when the Giants faced Washington.
Beckham Jr.’s admission may have drawn further raised eyebrows by teammates, but he’s by no means alone in feeling hampered by the league’s encroaching restrictions. Terrelle Pryor’s later explanation of the accidental ball flip that lead to a taunting penalty for him against the Ravens, claiming that despite the mistake, “[The referee is] going off his reaction. Really if he saw that, he did the right job,” doesn’t sound like a player breaking down the postgame so much as it does a patient post-lobotomy. Brown’s $12,154 fine may be “nothing to a boss,” but when taunting penalties are changing the potential outcomes of games, they become a little more dire.
At this point, Goodell’s Machiavellan rule over the league is laughable, if for no reason other than the fact that man who turned the NFL into a $13 billion business is about to gamble it all away as his own paranoia lets his disciplinary powers run further unchecked. Yet the problem with the Mad King’s mania isn’t one of over-adjudication; or rather, it isn’t anymore. That baby seems to have gone out with the bathwater when the league decided an increase in pass interference calls were the best way to make the game more exciting.
The mission statement of the NFL is simple. “To provide our fans, communities and partners the highest quality sports and entertainment in the world, and to do so in a way that is consistent with our values.” The word football doesn’t appear once in the short sentence. The word that does appear prominently? Entertainment. Say what you will about athleticism, a shift in play to running quarterbacks, a predilection for airing the ball out, the NFL is less about football than it is about entertainment. Rules are constantly being rejiggered to allow games to be higher scoring. To allow fans to feel the money and hours they pour in for just 13 games isn’t a mitzvah, but a few hours of non-stop entertainment for cheaper than it costs to take the family to the movies during the same block of time. And to curb touchdown celebrations in the name of constantly shifting values isn’t just needless adjudication; it’s bad entertainment.
The NFL’s PR problems are lengthy and well-publicized, which makes the removal of game time merriment significantly more foolhardy. But even when you (work very, very hard to) look past the lack of disciplinary transparency, numerous instances of domestic violence, and rapidly decreasing shelf life of scrambled eggs brains, the league can’t afford to lose, football tends to come up short on bang for the buck, especially this season. Teams have been short-staffed, games have all been close, and even the Vikings improbable success story doesn’t feel that revolutionary. There are no really great teams this year; no lingering rivalries to battle out for bragging rights. And let’s be honest: football may reverentially be referred to as a game of inches when it comes to unpredictability, but it’s also a literal game of inches. As in “we’ve been stuck here for five minutes and haven’t moved an inch.” And with just 11 minutes of action for every three hours of game play, Odysseus has had shorter trips back to Ithaca than some teams do to the end zone by constantly running it down the middle.
And really, who are these rules for anyways? At this point in its tenure, is the league really maintaining the farcical pretense that pro sports can in any way impart values about sportsmanship or professional conduct, when it can barely entertain its fans for 5.7% percent of the game? The biggest irony of the over-adjudication of game play doesn’t just lie in the fact that overcorrecting to prevent subjectivity merely breeds further subjectivity; it’s that anyone, least of all the commissioner of the National Football League, thought that NFL was a paragon of exemplary value and stellar role models.
In Roger Goodell’s NFL, the jersey may wear you, but at the end of the day does it even matter, if nobody is having any fun?