The Last Days of Football

In order for the amount of pressure in the football to mean something, people have to care about football; if we can agree that the pressure matters, then we agree that football matters, and if we can agree on that, then we still care about the game enough to keep investing. In order for the integrity of the game to be taken seriously, integrity itself must be plausible.

Super Bowl Preview

image via the Concord Monitor

When the future looks quizzically back at our own benighted era in search of the exact moment when the institutionalized incompetence, nepotism, and greed of the NFL pushed football into obscurity once and for all, the strange weeks between the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl 49 will surely be a leading candidate. The furor over the amount of air pressure in the footballs used by the New England Patriots’ offense in their 45-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts has been described as a circus, but that is an insult to the hard-working men and women of big top showbiz. No clown show, with or without elephants, has ever been as disorganized, as clumsy, or as hopelessly burdened with misallocated moral righteousness as the carnival now unfolding.

Are the Patriots actually guilty? I have an answer and I’ll get to it. But the more interesting question, at least to me, is why a league threatened with obsolescence should be so eager to discuss the question of the pounds-per-square-inch of Tom Brady’s footballs in the lead-up to its most popular annual game. One day last week, Deflategate led the three network evening news broadcasts. A number of former players, commentators, and general managers have added fuel to the fire, with former quarterback Mark Brunell going so far as to tear up on camera over Brady’s ostensible perfidy. The NFL meanwhile has continuously leaked rumors about the investigation to reporters, feeding the ESPN round-the-clock news machine. Some commentators have suggested the debate over the footballs is actually a relief. But a relief from what, and why?

Deflategate comes on the heels of a series of more serious scandals from the past two years, none more egregious than the revelation in 2013 that the league had spent two decades covering up the deleterious long-term effects that playing football has on its players. Once hiding this information was no longer tenable, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell settled with more than 5,000 former players for $675 million dollars, or roughly $25 million per team. These terms were so favorable for ownership that a judge eventually threw them out.

Another troubling scandal took place the next offseason, when video surfaced of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée Janay from a Vegas elevator. When the gossip site TMZ posted the video online, Goodell suspended Rice for two games. A short while later, video from inside the elevator was found and posted online. The ensuing outrage pushed the league to extend the suspension indefinitely.

In the aftermath, focus came to rest on whether the league had seen the second video—the one of Rice actually hitting Janay. If league officials saw only the first video, the reasoning went, then the initial sentence was only inadequate (after all, this is the league that suspended receiver Josh Gordon for four times as long—eight games—for smoking weed). If they had seen the second video, however—that was something frightening. Any feeling person who saw that footage would have known Rice had to go. Wisely choosing to appear incompetent instead of unfeeling, Goodell insisted that he hadn’t seen the video before passing sentence. This led ESPN’s marquee writer Bill Simmons to call him a liar, which led NFL business partner ESPN to suspend him for three weeks (one week longer than Rice’s initial suspension).

Why do we need to see something we know has happened in order for it to have meaning? The success of the NFL is due almost entirely to its suitability for televised viewing. The same force that makes it feel different to see Ray Rice hit Janay on camera from four feet away, rather than infer it from less explicit footage, is the same force that makes it so compelling to watch football from the same distance. If anyone should have understood the power of intimate violence on camera, it was the National Football League.

And the NFL does understand it, which is why the league has gone to such lengths to insist on its own incompetence (including hiring an “independent” law firm to rule that the league knew nothing of the second video). But now this strategy of self-professed negligence has blossomed into a larger crisis of legitimacy, the depth of which is indicated by the league’s efforts to keep deflategate front and center. Only in this context does the smaller question of this or that football, in this or that game, come as a relief. In order for the amount of pressure in the football to mean something, people have to care about football; if we can agree that the pressure matters, then we agree that football matters, and if we can agree on that, then we still care about the game enough to keep investing. In order for the integrity of the game to be taken seriously, integrity itself must be plausible.

The industry term for a blockbuster movie franchise is a “tentpole”—it’s the asset that holds the whole operation up. At the height of mass culture, in the second half of the 20th century, it was enough to be on television to command an audience in the tens of millions. But as channels multiplied, the difference between those properties that could command such audiences and those that merely gathered under the shelter they provided began to fall into relief. Tentpoles are harder and harder to find in the movie business today, and those that do exist are as frequently a result of 3D ticket prices as they are of any organic appeal. In music, too, a few big stars give life enough for a universe of micro-ecologies where many artists barely make a living. Against this backdrop the NFL stands out as the last fortress of mass culture. Today, nothing is watched by everybody, but the thing that comes closest is the NFL.

This power was on display in its demand that this year’s Super Bowl halftime performer pay the NFL for the privilege, in the form of cash now and a percentage of tour revenues later. All three of the finalists—Rihanna, Coldplay and Katy Perry—refused, and apparently Perry was chosen anyway. But the message was clear: No show is bigger than the NFL, not the biggest pop star, nothing.

How did the NFL get so big? Conventional wisdom points to two things: the equal distribution of revenues among teams and an equal distribution of wins. In the first case, the massive revenue from TV contracts is split equally among the different franchises, regardless of market share. This means that small market teams, like the Indianapolis Colts, receive just as much in TV revenue as larger market ones, like the Dallas Cowboys. In terms of wins, the NFL has a stated commitment to competitive parity such that, as the phrase has it, “any team can conceivably beat any other team on any given Sunday.” Parity is enforced first by a salary cap which sets both a minimum and a maximum amount of money teams can spend on their players, and second, by the NFL draft, which has the worst teams in the game getting first choice of players entering the league from college.

But equal distribution looks different in the 21st century. Popular though it is, the NFL is less democratic than dynastic; it’s an organization of thirty-one families and one public partnership (Green Bay!). Nearly half of the teams have changed hands since the millennium, seven through familial successions. The NFL’s thirty-two teams are spread out across the entire continental landmass of the United States. Owners include famous entrepreneurs like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (owner of the world champion Seattle Seahawks) and Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank, and brilliant con men like Alex Spanos of the San Diego Chargers. It is the biggest and most profitable sport in America, but the spoils from its success are spread unevenly, to say the least.

If someone were to provide you with a printout of all the people who go to work in an NFL stadium and ask you to identify who, based solely on income, would have the greatest incentive to make the league look bad, you could be forgiven for looking first at the cheerleaders. Cheerleaders make, on average, $100 a game. They get nothing for practices, and little else besides “promotional opportunities.” The league treats cheerleaders so badly that if Deflategate turned out to be a plot by the cheerleaders to make the league look as chaotic and out-of-control as it has, no one could blame them. But good luck finding any extensive coverage about the half-dozen or so class-action lawsuits various squads have filed this year for wage theft.

Your next guess might be the refs. The refs, those same professionals tasked with protecting the integrity of the game, are part-time employees. They used to have decent benefits, but the league came for those too, locking out the refs for the first three games of last season in an effort to get them to surrender part of their retirement. The refs balked, which led to replacement refs, which led to a series of games decided on increasingly horrible calls, until the owners finally agreed to keep the current benefits in place until 2016. This was spun as a win for the refs, but really, it was a win for ownership, which got everything it wanted within a four-year time frame. One wonders if the real refs hurt so bad watching their game suffer that they came back early.

After the refs, you might look to the players, who, despite suffering the now well-documented consequences of brain damage from a lifetime of playing, currently receive less of the league revenue as a percentage than ever before. This is because two years before the owners locked out the refs, they locked out the players, all while to trying to add two more games to the season, charging them exorbitant fines for small infractions like refusing to speak to the media (imagine being fined $100,000 by your employer for not talking to somebody who is only going to write mean things about you!), and making them play games on Thursday nights, before they’ve properly recovered from the past Sunday’s game.

Why would owners want to make players play on Thursdays? To screw the press, of course. This takes us to the next group, the huddled, terrified masses in the press box. These people have seen their employing institutions shrivel, their budgets vanish, and, in the midst of all this, the league, whom they have showered with publicity at no cost, now wants to cut them out entirely. The reason the NFL started Thursday Night Football was to broadcast it on its own subscription-only network, the NFL Network. (You might ask how a league that enjoys such massive stadium construction subsidies could take its product off the public networks without repercussion, but only if you haven’t been in this world very long.) As a result, the press continues to show up, continues to write about football, while the league calmly makes plans to steal the press’s lunch money for the foreseeable future. If any member of the press raises a peep—like Simmons criticizing Goodell—their employer, ESPN (really ABC, or really Disney) could find themselves not invited to bid on the next television contract.

But it is those who should least want to destroy football who are destroying it—the owners. They have spent a decade doing everything conceivable to suck every last bit of profit from the game and the wages of those who work for it. They have run the entire operation into the ground for the sake of short-term profit with a willingness worthy of a hostile takeover.

Ex-commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who had the job before Goodell, has said as much on multiple occasions, most recently to GQ. He noted the tremendous damage these aggressive tactics have done to the game: “If they see you making decisions only in economic terms, they start to understand that and question what you’re all about. There’s a huge intangible value in peace. There’s a huge intangible value in having allies.” Then again, Tagliabue came up in the paradigm the owners hired Goodell to disrupt. Remembering the days when NFL was fourth in sports, never-mind first in entertainment, Tagliabue has openly winced at the public spectacle of huge labor fights and massive fair-play scandals whipped up by management. Such efforts may give the owners some sense of control, but they also let the public in on just how messy a sausage is being made. In these moments, the lawful chaos of a Sunday ritual featuring twenty-two men wrestling over a piece of pork became background to a much larger struggle about what it meant to own the farm. But there is a reason for this, too: revenues are up 65 percent since Goodell took over, even while the number of viewers under the age of 50 is down 10 percent.

While revenue-sharing remains in place, the frequent chaos initiated by owners’ attempts to redistribute money toward themselves has destabilized the sport, making it impossible for the league to speak credibly about the “integrity of the game.” If the integrity of the game mattered so much to the owners, why did they let replacement refs ruin the first three games of last season? Meanwhile, as tactics like these have spread feelings of anger, resentment and fear, the distribution of wins has shifted, too, beginning when Bill Belichick drafted an unheralded quarterback out of Michigan named Tom Brady.

It is a commonplace among Patriots partisans that Belichick’s only crime has been winning too much. Jealousy! they cry, Envy! The league, other fans, everyone only hates Belichick because they want to be him. However much that may be true, there is something, if not criminal, then at least threatening in Belichick’s annoying tendency to win all the time. If we consider playoff victories as a scarce necessity that must be spread evenly to maintain national interest in the sport, then each team should average a playoff victory once every three years; Belichick and Brady have averaged nearly two per year. If we take appearances in both conference and league championships as the highest value assets the NFL distributes to its franchises, there have been seventy-eight such assets over the past thirteen years (twenty-six Super Bowl slots, fifty-two conference championships) to spread between thirty-two teams, or, again, an average of a little more than two per team per decade. If you step back and think about it, if each team either got to the Super Bowl, or the game before the super bowl, twice a decade, that probably would make for a pretty happy and healthy league. Problem is the Patriots have fifteen such appearances, more than seven times what they should if the system is working. That rate of over-accumulation can be destabilizing, especially in a system where the only other kind of revenue, the real kind, is pretty tightly controlled.

Looked at this way, you understand how people could feel like the Patriots are cheating even if they’re playing by the rules. They’re wrecking the curve in a business that depends on it. In fact, you could take it even further and explain all of the weirdness perpetrated by the owners during the Patriots’ reign—targeting the refs!—as so much desperation caused by the austerity conditions resulting from the New England’s dominance.

The usual explanation for this dominance is a bunch of hocus-pocus about the Patriot Way, some mystical culture of “doing things the right way,” clichés that pave the way for the howls of outrage when it turns out these professional millionaires at the top of their field might not always be the friendliest people. But this is all lies.

How have the Patriots really done it? By leveraging, chiefly—not with money, but with past successes. Each and every bit of capital Belichick has gained from his historic run he reinvests immediately in some difficult-to-swallow decision that, more often than not, results in more wins, which means more leeway, which means more and more painful decisions.

The draft and the salary cap were designed to maintain competitive balance between teams, but Belichik has learned to game them both. The draft is an impossibly complicated game with too many unpredictable factors, and coaches and scouts can at best make educated half-guesses at this or that player’s viability at the next level. As Grantland.com’s Bill Barnwell documented this week, Belichick strategy has been to consistently trade away his high draft picks for more picks, later on. As a result, while it is probably true that Belichik is a better drafter than most, it is definitely true that he has had more chances to be good.

This may not seem like the riskiest strategy, just a way of increasing your odds—but that’s only if you don’t understand the incredible hype that goes into the NFL draft. It’s a huge deal, second only to the Super Bowl. Fans agonize over the talent and make mock drafts and generally can’t wait to see who their team picks first. It’s a feel-good day when almost everybody wins. (Disappointment comes later, when a highly touted draft pick turns out to be a bust.) Because of this, most coaches can’t get away with trading away their first round pick, year after year: the fans would never stand for it. But most coaches don’t have three titles. Belichick is betting that any anger the fans may have at his constant trading down will pass when he delivers the wins.

A similar logic underlies his approach to the salary cap. Again and again, beloved and high-priced veterans are cut, traded, or not re-signed every year, often with no warning: Lawyer Milloy, Mike Vrabel, Deion Branch, Logan Mankins, Richard Seymour, Wes Welker. This keeps the Patriots out of the cap-hell that is supposed to keep talent flowing throughout the league. But like the maddening draft strategy, this leveraging, too, generates immense angst among the fan base. Should something go wrong, should the Patriots not make it to the playoffs, all hell would break loose. We saw a glimpse of it this season, after this year’s ritual veteran trade—Logan Mankins to the Bucs—the Patriots stumbled early, losing badly to Kansas City on national television, with much of the blame falling on the same unit, the offensive line, that Belichick had depleted with the trade.

The ensuing firestorm was intense and, from a distance, inexplicable. The blowout loss to the Chiefs was only the third such loss in Belichick and Brady’s entire tenure. For this, all of New England was going to throw them under the bus? Outsiders didn’t realize that as far as the fans were concerned, Belichick was already leveraged to the hilt. If you are going to trade down in the draft year after year, harass beloved players into pay cuts, and trade others out of the blue; if you’re going to sign Brady to a below-market deal and then let his favorite receiver (Welker) sign with his archrival (the Broncos, quarterbacked by Peyton Manning); if you are going to feed your fans a steady diet of broken emotional glass—then yes, you damn well better win, early, often, and always. There is no affective space left for failure.

This was written on Brady’s face the night of the Kansas City blowout, after two cry-for-help interceptions got him benched. You could see all of the sacrifices he’d made in the vacant look in his eye. All the millions left on the table, all the friends dispatched to other teams, all those relationships, all lost. And for what? He looked less like a great player beaten in a minor early-season game and more like a man who had bet everything and lost.

The Patriots recovered, of course, winning of twelve of their next fourteen games en route to the AFC championship, but everyone kept coming back to that Kansas City game, as the moment when for the first time, the entire region realized just how fragile the whole thing was.

So, did the Patriots cheat? My best guess is: sort of. I suspect what happened is exactly what Belichick said happened in his second press conference on the subject last Saturday night. The Patriots filled the balls to 11.5, rubbed them until they got to 12.5, had them pass inspection, after which time they returned to their previous state of 11.5. I suspect that every step of this process was 100 percent legal and that any further deflation was likely the result of the weather. Or perhaps the team employee caught on camera taking the balls into the bathroom for 90 seconds en route to the field did it the old fashioned way. In either case, I do not think it affected the outcome.

But in order to settle the question of whether this represents a near-universal kind of fudging or a devious assault on football itself, we need someone with credibility enough to decide for us. But such a person no longer exists. Roger Goodell has made $77 million over the past twenty-four months to be that person, and he can’t even control the leaks in his office. Nobody believes a damn word out of his mouth.

So here’s a tip for when you’re out there surfing the internet and listening to everyone talk about the “integrity of the game.” Every time you hear that phrase, swap it out for “the value of the asset.” This makes things clearer. Because regardless of what you think about the deflated balls, Belichick winning so much has depleted the value of the other owner’s assets—and so if they can create a stir and dock him a first round pick, the way they did the last time, during so-called Spygate, when they managed to convince the world that filming something that is already being broadcast live in front of 80,000 people was a crime against integrity—then they are going to take that chance, fallout be damned.

So that’s the recent history. The deep history is a bit darker and a bit shorter, but it helps to explain the insane tenor of these proceedings. Buried deep in the swaths of coverage last week was an interview given by “Iron” Mike Ditka, legendary coach of the 1986 Bears, considered by many to be the greatest team ever (they beat my beloved Pats 46-10 in a ridiculous Super Bowl blowout). Ditka has become a real advocate for the original group of people screwed by ownership, the players suffering from a lifetime of concussions. He asked longtime NFL broadcaster Bryant Gumbel if, knowing what he knows now, he would let his children play football? Of course not, Gumbel said. Yeah, Ditka replied, me neither; “And that’s sad. My whole life was football. [And now] I think the risk is worse than the reward, I really do.” And with that, the clock began to tick. So much of the madness and volume of the past two weeks has been not just about the Patriots, not just about ownership somehow managing to blame the workers for everything, again, but about the future of the game itself. How long will it survive when Iron Mike won’t let his kids play? A decade? Maybe two? One of the reasons everyone wants the Patriots out of the Super Bowl is that there may not be that many more to go around.

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