If the Saints’ ongoing trial by tyrant has any silver lining, it’s that people are waking up to what a terrible commissioner the NFL has in Roger Goodell. I’ve disliked him since his first season in 2006, and I’ve often felt like I was the only fan in America who didn’t adore the man. It didn’t help that I wasn’t able to articulate precisely what bugged me about him. But now New Orleans fans understand. And soon enough, other teams’ supporters will too. It’s just a matter of time before the commissioner once again gets the itch to make another statement.
And when that itch rears its venereal head again, many of us will only be too happy to scratch. Take it away, Christine Brennan:
Roger Goodell gave our increasingly permissive, slap-on-the-wrist society a wonderful gift Wednesday afternoon. The NFL commissioner showed us what real punishment looks like.
That asinine pair of pearl-clutching sentences encapsulates everything that is wrong with pro sports, media and society in general.
American history is littered with leaders who turned their domains into autocracies. J. Edgar Hoover. Joe Arpaio. George W. Bush. Vince McMahon. Polarizing figures praised by advocates for “getting things done,” and reviled by critics for quashing dissent. Greedy people interested in being feared authority figures above all else, even as they pay marginal lip service to our best interests.
Add Goodell to those ranks. He is driven by power, but even more by money — specifically, the need to protect NFL profits. His safety campaign boils down to dodging lawsuits, hence his willingness to arbitrarily crucify teams for bounties, but to not splurge on the most technologically advanced helmets. It’s also why, despite the safety talk, he wanted an 18-game season. He’s rightfully aware that sports is a business, but seems to forget there’s more to it than that.
It’s also about entertainment. And Goodell’s been in the luxury suite too long to understand what entertainment actually entails. In his mind, we fans are too delicate to tolerate the uppity antics of certain players, nor will we stand for any kind of touchdown celebration. And we definitely won’t watch any game that doesn’t involve the anticlimactic triumph of the league’s largest-market teams led by its most marketable players. No, what we really want is a squeaky clean game of minimal-contact football played by stoic players who exhibit class by having no fun whatsoever. And if we can’t afford a ticket, then at least we should have to buy hi-def flatscreens and expensive satellite packages to see what’s going on.
Oh, and is it too much to ask that the NFL be our arbiter of moral values? After all, our “increasingly permissive, slap-on-the-wrist society” could use a stern father figure to set our wayward selves straight. Sure, I’m nearly 32, but football brings out the kid in me — and that kid will be corrupted if exposed to anything more emotionally ambiguous than Miracle Whip. Right, Christine?
Such unblinking allegiance to Goodell here and elsewhere is a stain on the media, whose job it’s supposed to be to question the merit of his “wonderful gift” to the Saints. Do we even care whether or not the punishment fits the crime anymore, or have we all become Nancy Grace disciples? Punishment isn’t even punishment anymore; it’s a fetish. It’s to us what war was to George W. Bush: not something entered into after careful consideration as a last resort, but a brash, honking flexing of our most blood-engorged muscles. And there’s no drug testing of any kind in this bloodsport, because the juice is what makes it thrilling.
The conversation isn’t at all about what bounty systems mean for the integrity of the NFL, or their threat to player safety. There’s little debate over whether the details have been misconstrued, or whether it’s fair to clamp down one team and hope it makes others clean up their act. The conversation is barely about safety, or even football, at all. Instead, it’s about the glory of Goodell and his ability to get things done. How he foisted a harsh punishment, and how wonderful that is. Because a suitable punishment for a transgression is no longer enough; everything has to be an over-the-top morality lecture. They say, “Look how severe we are!” And instead of thinking, “That’s unfairly harsh,” we say, “Wow! They’re not messing around.”
The problem isn’t that America is a “permissive, slap-on-the-wrist society” — it’s that the exact opposite is true. We love swift, vocal and draconian retribution, and Goodell is only too happy to dole it out. If there had been no Saints scandal, or no Michael Vick, he would have created them. Not because he cares, but because he can.
The silver lining is that Goodell has overplayed his hand. And that finally hits home for a lot of us. It’s opened up the long-overdue debate on flashy punishment versus consistent enforcement — a debate that has ramifications far beyond the diversion that is pro football.
That alone may redeem the commissioner. Let’s hope.