For the NFL, it was more of the same last weekend. Another one of those “marquis players” going down with a season ending injury. In this case, Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks who blew out his Achilles tendon. Sherman was a media favorite for his reliably “provocative” quotes. He will be missed.
Or maybe not.
There were a lot of empty seats at some stadiums. The Rams are playing well enough to make the playoffs and, perhaps, go deep into them. But nobody in Los Angeles seems to care. Too caught up, perhaps, in the Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, et. al. scandal. It seems, intuitively, that Los Angeles ought to have a professional football team, though for years it did not. And that if it does have a team, then it ought to be a contender, which this one is. And, finally, that team should draw legions of passionate fans, which just isn’t happening. Trends, of course, come to life in Los Angeles, so this could be a bad sign for the NFL with indifference to professional football spreading out into the countryside like a new hair style or organic diet.
The fans in Denver, unlike those in L.A., are passionate about their team. So they booed the Broncos on Sunday night as they were being rolled by the New England Patriots. The Broncos won a Super Bowl a couple of years ago with a team that had been put together by John Elway who was the quarterback on two Broncos teams that won it all before he hung ’em up and moved into the front office. Too soon to say that he has lost his touch. But the fans have plainly lost patience.
But perhaps the biggest NFL news of the week came out of the league’s executive suites.
Roger Goodell, who is commissioner of the NFL, is looking for a new contract. He has been on the job for a little over 10 years, now, and he has been busy. His job is to speak for the league and to administer justice when players step out of line and to more or less keep the peace among the owners, all of whom are billionaires and got into football because owning horses or racing yachts seemed a little meek and wimpy. Anyone can own those things. But when you own linebackers… well, son, then you are breathing some rare air.
When speaking for the league, Goodell does a passable and utterly forgettable job. It probably helps that his father was a Republican senator from New York and was fluent in the language of empty platitudes. On administering justice, Goodell’s record isn’t entirely shiny. There was the case of Ray Rice who was caught on video in the elevator of a casino, arguing with a woman and then dropping her with a brutal shot to the jaw. The video ended with Rice dragging her unconscious form out of the elevator.
The law got involved and charges were brought. But the video was not made public and people assumed when Rice was charged with “domestic violence,” that it was a matter of some pushing and slapping. The league, in the form of Goodell, imposed a mild punishment for Rice — suspension for two games — which provoked some disappointment among activist groups. But nothing the NFL couldn’t ride out.
Then the video leaked. And the question became, what did the NFL — and particularly Goodell — know? And when? The league — and Goodell — claimed to have been unaware of the video and brutality it revealed. And it backtracked on Rice’s punishment, making it much more severe and, essentially, finishing him as a football player.
The whole matter found its way, inevitably, into the courts where a judge said a lot of unkind things about Goodell and in the end, the matter was investigated by, wait for it… Robert S. Mueller III. Goodell, and the league, survived, but did not emerge covered in glory.
Then, there was the matter of Tom Brady and the under-inflated footballs. Goodell found Brady guilty of being part of a conspiracy to deflate footballs enough that his grip would be improved. You can get a lot of argument, still, about the episode. It seems silly, as was the name given the affair — “Deflategate,” it was inevitably called. But what is beyond dispute is that it was controversial and wound up with the league — i.e., Goodell — and Brady squaring off in court. Brady challenged the legality of a four game suspension imposed by Goodell and the whole thing went on for the better part of two years. Which seems like a long time to be litigating the question of soft footballs. We used to be able to try, convict, and hang a man for murder in less time than that. In the end, Brady lost and sat out the first four games of last season. Somehow, he survived and took the Patriots to a Super Bowl championship in one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history. We should all “lose” so magnificently.
That a dispute over under-inflated footballs went to federal court seems a little baroque, but we live in a litigious society. One could be forgiven for thinking that the courts ought to have better things to do than spend their time, and taxpayer money, over an internal rules dispute within a ludicrously prosperous sports oligopoly. Or that the NFL should be investigated by the same former FBI director who is now nipping at the heels of the President of the United States.
But, then, Goodell is a former lawyer and the league over the last few seasons has become exceedingly litigious. What were once “close calls” are now reviewable and appealable decisions. The people making the final call aren’t even down on the field. They are remote and that, presumably, adds to their authority.
While Goodell “won” the “deflategate” argument, it didn’t necessarily make him popular among the owners. Robert Kraft, who owns Brady’s team, was especially torqued. Goodell can afford to make only so many enemies among the owners.
And now he has another. In the form of Jerry Jones, the boss Cowboy and perhaps the most recognizable and conspicuous of all the NFL owners. Jones likes the limelight and he has a knack for finding it.
One of his players — running back Ezekiel Elliott — has domestic violence “issues” (as they say) and Goodell recently hit him with a suspension. Which was appealed and… well, you know how it goes. Which means that it is with the lawyers and in court and last Sunday, Elliott was not on the field when the Cowboys lost to the Atlanta Falcons and looked inept doing it.
Jones is unhappy with Goodell’s handling of the affair and is opposed to renewing his employment contract when it runs out in a few months. He says that it comes down to a lot more than the Elliott dispute. That it is about an “avalanche of issues that have beleaguered the NFL unlike any other time in recent memory. These changing conditions must be weighed relative to the timing of the Commissioner’s contract extension.”
The details of the contract negotiation have, inevitably, leaked. Not even the NFL can keep a secret any longer.
The NFL may be in the midst of its worst season in memory. A season of player suspensions, players taking a knee during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, season-ending injuries to the game’s biggest stars, long and boring games that are filled with commercials and replays, and generally uninspired football. But Goodell seems to think he has done a fine job and that the league is on the trajectory, under his leadership, to grow and become even richer.
So he would, according to the reports, like a package that includes a $50 million annual salary and health care for life for him and his family. And, also, as lagniappe, he would like the NFL to provide him with private jet travel until his death or the end of the world, whichever comes first.
It is easy to knock the NFL as a kind of analogue to Roman decadence. Gladiatorial combat for the amusement of the mob. Excess piled upon excess. And so forth.
But in their current iteration, it seems, the games are losing their violent tension and appeal and beginning to bore the mob. All those empty seats in Los Angeles. Too much like the law and the legal system, perhaps. If that is what rings your bell, you can get the real thing in the coming showdown between Jerry Jones and Roger Goodell.
And the big question is not, “Will they go for it on fourth down?” But “Will Roger get that airplane?”
Geoffrey Norman’s NFL column runs every week at Spectator.org.
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