By EVANS CLINCHY
While it's fair to guess he didn't realize it at the time, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell painted himself into a fairly inescapable corner on July 24, 2014, when he first announced his decision to suspend Ravens running back and wife-beater Ray Rice for a mere two games.
From that moment on, the message was clear: Goodell was more than just a figurehead for his 32 owners. He was a moral arbiter. With his iron-fisted, autocratic disciplinary decisions, Goodell was out to rule once and for all on what was right and what was wrong (and precisely how wrong). Rice, who was caught on camera punching his then-fiancee in the face and knocking her unconscious, was suspended for reasons that had nothing to do with football. He had not been a detriment to his team; he had done nothing to directly harm the integrity of the game itself. Furthermore, he had not been convicted of a crime in a court of law. No - Goodell suspended Rice because what he had done was bad. And with the severity of his punishment, Goodell was tacitly making a statement about precisely how bad.
Two games. In other words, Rice's actions were twice as bad than those of Titans safety Michael Griffin, who got one game in November 2013 for an illegal hit on Raiders tight end Mychal Rivera that knocked his helmet off. They were half as bad as what Jets tight end Kellen Winslow did in October of 2013, getting busted for violating the league's policy for the use of performance-enhancing substances. There's a sliding scale for suspensions in the modern NFL, but from July 24 on, it has appeared to be based on nothing but the whims of its monomaniacal commissioner.
By handing down a suspension to Rice based on his own moral compass - one that previously made headlines for how amazingly lenient it was - Goodell had begun to push himself irreversibly down a slippery slope. From then on, every suspension would inevitably be compared to the ones before it. Two games for this infraction? Six for that? The debates are always asinine, of course, as no reasonable human being measures the value of a person's morals based on the football games they miss. But nevertheless, July 24 marked the start of a new era. The comparison game would be played, incessantly, whether it made a lick of sense or not.
So then you have this thing with Tom Brady. To the best of our knowledge, Brady has never raped or abused anyone. His crime, for which he was punished Monday, was far less serious then Rice's, and also tougher to precisely define. He had some murky level of involvement in (or at least tacit understanding of) a plan to reduce the level of air pressure in a few footballs. Concurrently (note this is far different than saying "as a result"), Brady and his under-inflated footballs went on to pummel the Colts back in January to secure an AFC championship for his Patriots.
As the speculation about a possible Brady suspension began to pick up last week, the calls for a harsh suspension, in defense of the NFL's honor and its integrity and its "shield," became deafening. And not just from the usual NFL-shilling reporters you'd expect - the Kings and the Schefters and the Mortensens. Nay - even the New York friggin' Times, a left-leaning publication you might expect to be above this nonsense, had to weigh in. Here's William C. Rhoden, in Thursday's "Sports of the Times" column, insisting upon a draconian punishment for the Pats' quarterback:
"He is not accused of using steroids or of domestic violence. Substance abusers receive a handful of games. Greg Hardy was suspended for 10 for issues related to domestic violence. Brady should not receive a lesser punishment than that, and there is a case to be made that he should receive a more severe one. Brady is accused of something that erodes the standards of competition."
You knew this would happen, but that doesn't make it any less aggravating. The idea of comparing the two "crimes" is patently ridiculous. But once it's out there, we just can't help but debate it to death, because that's what we do best. We are humans on the Internet in 2015, after all.
The "Rice versus Brady" debate does have one positive side effect, which is that it highlights exactly what I mean about Goodell being painted into a corner. Once it came time for him to suspend Brady, he'd already lost the PR battle. There was no successful outcome for the commish. Should he bring down the sledgehammer? Turns out it didn't matter, because he'd be bashed either way. Hand down a long suspension, and you're implying that the PSI of footballs is more important than the safety of women; go with a short sentence, and you look apathetic about the integrity of the game, or, even worse, you look too cozy with Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Damned if you do, et cetera.
Again, the whole comparison is stupid, but within the fantastical world of StupidLand™ that Goodell has created for himself, this is the predicament he's stuck in. He deserves no sympathy. It's entirely his fault.
Compounding the inanity of The Argument That Took Itself Far Too Seriously is the fact that there are major media people obliviously spilling gasoline on the fire. This seems like an opportune time to refer back to Rhoden:
"This is not just a football issue. In many walks of life, success has become about gaining the edge, whatever the consequences. That is why this is such an important moment. This is the second time the Patriots have crossed the line that separates gamesmanship - such as using a deceptive formation - from clear-cut rules violations. It must be called what it is: cheating."
Except here's the thing, Mr. Rhoden - "just a football issue" is precisely what this is. Whether a football is fully inflated has no impact on anything other than the outcome of a game (and even that impact is up for debate, though that's a debate in which I personally have zero interest).
The idea that Goodell must make an example out of Brady because it will teach America valuable life lessons, or whatever such point you're getting at, is ... wow. I don't even know where to start, except I can definitively say this. If you want your pro football commissioner to deliver messages that influence people "in many walks of life," as you claim, you should probably begin with the message that beating women and children is reprehensible. That, my good sir, is "not just a football issue." That's something that really matters.
If you have any illusion of the NFL's competence in handling serious disciplinary issues that extend beyond football, you clearly haven't been paying attention. Even a cursory glance at how the league handled Rice's situation should be enough to elicit outrage.
Last December, Barbara S. Jones, a onetime district court judge, released the results of a long and detailed investigation of the Rice suspension, and her report painted a damning portrait of Goodell - a man who appeared too unprepared and too apathetic to adequately handle a case of domestic abuse.
In explaining the steps that Goodell took to hear Rice's story, Jones wrote that "The Commissioner's notes are not detailed and do not contain any verbatim quotes of what Rice said happened in the elevator. They do not contain the word 'slap' anywhere." Furthermore, Jones detailed a shocking lack of diligence on the league's part to track down the specifics of what happened - she wrote that there was a second video of the incident, from inside the elevator, according to various source, but "The NFL never asked Rice for the second video." Imagine if Rice were a ball deflater or a steroid abuser. He'd have asked twice.
Goodell and the people around him are football people. That's all they are. They're not equipped to investigate serious crimes, nor do they make any attempt to be. Slate's Josh Levin, back in December when the Jones report first dropped, compared the NFL's procedures regarding domestic violence to the way some NCAA member schools investigate sexual assaults by having the victims interview with grossly unqualified personnel, like engineering professors. Flawed processes like these are the product of apathy. They are tacit, yet still blatant, admissions of a complete lack of credibility.
Of course, lacking credibility is nothing new for Goodell's NFL. Where was he when the criticism surrounding head injuries really started to pick up? Where was he to comment on the horrifying death of Junior Seau, or of Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins, and what their tragic stories might say about the impact of the brutality inherent in football?
Given all that we've heard (and perhaps more importantly, all that we haven't) from Goodell over the years, why are we still debating his role as a moral arbiter? Isn't that debate already long over? Aren't we past taking this sham of a disciplinary system seriously?
So now it's been decided that Tom Brady will miss four games of this upcoming season. He will sit out as New England begins its 2015 campaign against Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Jacksonville and Dallas, then presumably return on Sunday, October 18 as the Patriots face (fittingly) the Colts at Indianapolis. For the moment, the keys to the car belong to a young and untested Jimmy Garoppolo.
In the grand scheme of things ... who cares, you know? Garoppolo will start four games and probably manage a record of oh, let's say, 2–2. Then Brady will return, he'll play the final 12, he'll lead the Pats to a record of 9–3ish, and they'll finish with 11ish wins and be right in the hunt for an AFC title yet again. Ultimately, this will all be forgotten. Which is fine, because it's just football. It's a game.
In the meantime, though, the complaining will rage on, and much of it will look unmistakably like this:
Please, everyone, I beg of you: Just stop. Your arguments are obvious, unnecessary and beaten to death many times over. Tom Brady is not a villain on the same level as Ray Rice. We know this. It insults our intelligence that we have to keep hearing it.
There is no comparing deflated footballs to battered women. There is no "better" or "worse" or anything of the sort. The two transgressions exist on entirely different planes. They have absolutely nothing to do with one another, save for the fact that one power-crazed executive sees fit to dole out punishments to both of them as he sees fit.
"Playing into the NFL's hands," you ask? Yes, as a matter of fact, that is precisely what we're doing. Because even when Goodell seemingly "loses" these fights in the court of public opinion, he still ultimately wins. His job has nothing to do with your opinion of his morality or integrity. His only role is to make more money for himself and his 32 owners - and when he brings more attention to the sport, he's able to do exactly that.
Outrageous suspensions are part of the game, sadly. Goodell profits every time we "embrace debate" and tune in for news broadcasts and talk shows that discuss these scandals, be they Rice's or Brady's or anyone else's. He laughs all the way to the bank when we tune in on Sunday, hate-watching the sinners' teams and hoping against all hope to see them lose. The NFL is a large, grotesque monolith of moneymaking, and our anger only helps it grow larger.
Yes, Ray Rice got two games. Yes, Tom Brady got four. But the "games" are only that - games - and they should have no bearing on our collective moral compass or our outlook on life. The only acceptable response is to shake your head, laugh at the incompetence of the Goodell regime and move on. The real crime here isn't Brady's deflated footballs - it's our degenerate understanding of what really matters.
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