Someday, when we are all dead and gone, when all that is left behind are the remnants of half-remembered jokes about inflated balls, those who are still here will mark 2015 as the year professional football tipped into the realm of cultural satire.
There is no other way to view “Deflategate” than through this lens. Whether the accusations against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are merited or not, it is still the most absurd scandal in modern sports history. From the moment it became a thing back in January up until now, it has become a metaphor for all of America’s issues and hang-ups, all of the things we currently loathe and find infuriating about ourselves.
It is the story of a man who already has everything – multiple Super Bowls and a supermodel and a raging Tea-Party fiefdom willing to defend him to the death – waging a war against a man who had already established himself as a Marvel supervillain before all this happened, a man who makes so much goddamned money that even the president of the United States finds it kind of appalling. It is a battle between a franchise run by a draconian coach that has clearly taken every opportunity to stretch the rulebook to its limit, and a league run by a draconian dictator and an army of attorneys who have taken every opportunity to stretch its own plausible deniability to the limit. If Armando Iannucci weren’t busy skewering our actual political system, this would be the next best thing, because it is so wonderfully stupid and bereft of nobility.
Back at the beginning of the year, when this story began leaking air, it felt like a pleasant diversion from the usual tedium of the Super Bowl pregame. But then it took on a second wind, and then it became a full-blown “-Gate” and then we learned that it became Roger Goodell’s cause célèbre because he had fucked things up when the real scandal had occurred eight years ago. There were so many tangents and spare parts to this thing that it began to take on a Shakespearean tint; there were the hapless clubhouse workers who took the blame, and the odd press conferences in which coaches began referencing elementary physics and the very real notion that the commissioner of the most popular sport America has ever seen really doesn’t have much of a clue how to handle the public-relations aspect of his job.
There was the official report, and the suspension and the overturning of the suspension; there were the Patriots careening into this season with 10 straight wins, a blatant fuck-you-very-much to the league that had tried to take them down. And this thing is not over yet; the repercussions will carry on at least until the end of this season, and probably into next season – and probably will continue to be felt, on some level, for as long as Tom Brady is an NFL quarterback and Bill Belichick is an NFL coach and Roger Goodell continues to cling to his job.
But at some point, the palpable anger will be stripped away and we will be left with nothing but the ridiculous notion at the center of this scandal, which is that people try to get away with things they shouldn’t get away with, and people sometimes lie about those things and the people charged with policing those things often are just as capricious and untrustworthy as those who committed the transgressions in the first place. This is 2015, and we live in an America where no one trusts anyone else, where xenophobia divides Americans the way sporting allegiances traditionally have, an America where rich people get up on stages and argue with each other over shit that has nothing to do with the substance of the task at hand.
The most interesting thing about the NFL is that it is now so big that everyone pays attention to it, whether they want to or not. This means that it cannot help but become a metaphor, whether it means to or not; this means that everything we find doltish and absurd and overblown about “Deflategate” will someday be viewed as an example of everything ridiculous and silly about in America in 2015. It means nothing, and yet it says everything.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb