There are two things that start to humanize even our most deeply loathed sports nemeses. The first is age. Entropy rates hold steady at 100 percent, and eventually everyone becomes as mortal as everyone else. But the second is entirely optional. It’s when a force even more loathsome demands your attention. In more practical terms, the only entity besides the Reaper who can make people outside of New England start to like Tom Brady more is NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Goodell’s job is the perpetuation of the power of the NFL and the expansion of the brand of Goodell World, and his handling of “Deflategate” offers yet another iteration of the pursuit of that power absent any reason that it should be. Along with fines and voided draft picks for the Patriots, Goodell suspended Brady for four games for the upcoming season based on a suspect air-pressure testing regime, circumstantial evidence, a prosecutorial third-party investigation and specious definition of noncompliance.
Brady appealed the decision to the person who made it, who then upheld his ruling by citing Brady’s destruction of a cellphone that he was under no legal or moral obligation to provide. The dross of non-dispositive testimony, text messages and PSI data was alchemically converted into a solid-gold case based solely on what Goodell wanted to believe was on a phone – proof confirmed not only by its absence but by the belief that a resistant defendant must be guilty. Noncompliance with the NFL constitutes evidence of acts committed against it, and noncompliance is now defined as insufficient supplication to Goodell’s whimsy irrespective of the terms of collective bargaining agreements or the legal system.
It should never have gotten this far anyway. On the basic competitive level, it’s absurd that the NFL mandates testing footballs for air pressure before games, then returns them to individual teams, rather than keeping the tested, allowable game balls in a hopper controlled only by the officials. Even the game’s outcome undermined a lot of shrieking about violated purity. After the Patriots’ under-inflated footballs were replaced during halftime of the AFC Championship game, they racked up a further 28 points while shutting out the Colts. Brady went on to set the Super Bowl record for most pass completions in a game, using properly inflated balls against the NFL’s top-ranked defense. All this should have suggested handing down fines in accordance with existing ball-tampering penalties and changing the ball-handling protocols, but that would not have suggested that Brady and the Patriots’ biggest crime was shattering the delusive purity of the inerrant absolutism of Goodell World.
In context, both the investigation and judgments extenuating from it fare little better. Before Brady’s original sentence came down, a 13-year veteran NFL quarterback went on the radio and admitted that all six teams he’d played on had screwed around with the air pressure of footballs. If this was an existential threat for the NFL, it sure took its time. It also apparently suddenly increased in intensity. For instance, in November of that same season, the Panthers and Vikings both tampered with footballs in a game, and both suffered the penalty of being told not to do it again.
Worse, the Wells Report – which, astoundingly, was three times longer than the report on Ray Rice knocking his fiancée out – then concluded that there was no direct evidence of Brady’s cheating, after Ted Wells stated that Brady answered every question put to him and provided “substantial cooperation.” Attorney, sometime-sportswriter and avowed Houston Texans fan Steph Stradley has devoted months to aggregating all the ways in which the prosecutorial presentation of the “independent” report and Goodell’s judgments and assertions based on it can be torn into tissue paper. Further, Goodell’s leaning on Brady’s cellphone as evidence of some sinister obstruction of the investigation contradicts Wells’ own disinterest in physically obtaining the phone and just basic common sense. On the latter, the NFL had access to the phones of the equipment personnel Brady supposedly conspired with. Have you ever gotten a text from someone? Have you noticed that their words then show up on your phone?
If any part of this process has bordered on the sinister, it’s the notion that Goodell can have no contractual or criminal-justice pretext for seizing the private property of an employee and steamroll through a gateway into his private life, his thoughts and communications with anybody – then, when denied this, deprive that employee of privileges and payments he is owed, because privacy must equate with conspiracy. It is another perverse manifestation of a strain of capitalist worship that accords business intrusive powers that are considered scandalous in the public sphere. In a time when constitutionally valid accords with Iran are another Holocaust and every tax hike or regulation is Hitler’s Germany, your employer can mandate what you can wear, what you can express, who you can donate money to and when you can pee. Goodell World is just a ratings-busting prime-time broadcast of the notion that employment is a form of ownership.
And nothing illustrates the preposterous and comical overreach and intrusion of this policy more than its target. Tom Brady is easily one of the most aggressively unsympathetic people imaginable. He dumped an extraordinarily beautiful actress and married arguably the most famous supermodel in the world. His house looks as large as Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu, and it looks as tasteful as Olivia Newton-John’s Xanadu. He dreamed of one day of being like his idol – who won four Super Bowls – got the same job as his idol, then won four super Bowls. That’s not like dreaming of one day becoming an astronaut and then becoming an astronaut: that’s like dreaming of becoming the first male astronaut to be in a reverse gang bang in space, then blasting off into 69 redheaded Soviet cosmonauts in a rocket modeled after your own penis. He could drag a team to a 9-7 record at age 45, and he will beat your team that season. Twice, if yours is the Jets. He models Uggs, for fuck’s sakes. On top of all that, the prick is also good-looking.
And yet, and yet…time was already working on people’s sympathies for Brady. Everyone who is certifiably not insane about sports eventually goes through a form of sympathetic conversion for superstars whose clocks are running out. There’s some recognition there: even the direst Manning hater can see him throwing dying-quail throws on injured legs and a sore arm, think, now he’s like me, and know the pity of that, know the loss entailed when someone like him becomes more irresistibly like the rest of us. There is also this sense that we’ve spent so much time marinating in haterade about a player that we’ve maybe missed out on some things we might have enjoyed about their talent. We spent all that energy to distill resentment from spectacle, and now they may be gone soon, and we forgot to notice the times when what they did, athletically speaking, was objectively kind of magical. Even if you hated Tom Brady – and Lord knows you probably did – you know that his leaving will mark the departure of some of what makes football worth watching in spite of everything the NFL does to it. Goodell took these sparks of grudging sympathy and upended a 55-gallon drum of gasoline on them.
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The hermetic fantasia of Goodell World – the NFL as it exists within his whimsy – is a force more powerful than time. Time at least has its reason. It is never capricious, it is never hypocritical, it is both knowable and inexorable. The laws of Goodell World are whatever it wants that day, and its crimes are codified as denial of satisfaction. It wants an investigation, and it wants that investigation tasked with confirming its desires, and then, when the investigation does not satisfy it, it wants the absence of evidence to confirm its convictions. It then wants you to know that it has affirmed the goodness of itself via self-agreement. This is how you shall know the NFL and Goodell World: It Is that It Is.
The thing about rootless power, power maintained to perpetuate itself, outside any philosophy beyond the exertion of power, is that eventually it destroys whatever allegiance anyone had to the institutions it controls. Their worth as things – things to use or believe in or just recognize as themselves – becomes subordinate to their role in the furtherance of power. Roger Goodell wants you to believe that he acts in the interest of the sanctity of the NFL, but what the NFL actually is annually means increasingly less than the fact that he is in control of it. It is a faithless, rootless control, and nothing will reify that so much as the potential for football fans to start to sympathize a little for, of all people, Tom fucking Brady.