Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Roger Goodell: Fascist?

Speaking of people who should resign, it's a little terrifying to watch Roger Goodell continue to act like a dictator. He presents himself as the golden beacon of all that is good in football, yet time and again his punishments are nothing but obfuscations and lies. Goodell's a true politician, and I mean that in the smarmiest, slimiest sense of the word. Just check out Peter King's outright fellation of Goodell, and you'll see how well he's constructed this personal narrative as fearless leader (and maybe how unwilling the press is to deviate from it, presumably for fear of lost access... hmmm). He sits atop his perch at the most successful sports league in America, wholly exempt from competition and even anti-trust legislation, more than willing to abuse his power as the leader of an unaccountable monopoly. I half expect him to start threatening the other sports leagues.

Roger Goodell. Maybe a Fascist.

When the standard you're held to has been set by Bud Selig and David Stern, it's difficult to look disingenuous by comparison, but then there's Goodell, dispensing justice from on high under murky (if not downright false) moral pretenses. Citing safety, he once fined James Harrison for hits that were legal at the time Harrison made them and were not even called unnecessary roughness on the field. Since then, all under the guise of making a sport whose very existence is inherently dangerous safe, he's shown a willingness to fine players for any hit he deems unclean, even if it's uncalled. I'm obviously on the side of player safety, but these fines are inconsistent not only from hit to hit, but also with what we know about concussions and brain injuries. Curiously, while the players are scapegoated often for making hits that are unavoidable (because it's fucking football), the referees that miss them on the field are not disciplined at all. 

Goodell has also made himself into the league's bizarro Santa, determining naughty or nice on his own personal whim in disciplinary matters. And, like a good dictator, he's shown himself to be obsessed with keeping the image of his league squeaky clean, with little to no regard to due process: Goodell suspended Ben Roethlisberger for 4 games after rape allegations emerged despite Roethlisberger not being charged with a crime. Michael Vick was suspended for 4 games even after missing two seasons which he spent in prison. Goodell only answers to the owners, so there's no standard and no accountability, and today is yet another instance where he has penalized a party for acting within the rules of the game. 

The 2010 season operated without a salary cap because the collective bargaining agreement expired. All 32 teams had equal opportunity to spend as much as they wanted on player salaries, and structure salary expenditures such that they would pay out more during the uncapped year than during subsequent capped seasons (once a new CBA had been set). Every team was aware of this possibility, and four teams -the Redskins, Cowboys, Saints, and Raiders - acted on it by upping their spending specifically in the year 2010, to different degrees. Mind you, none of them did anything at all against the rules. They just took advantage of a loophole (and I remember reading stories about how Jerry Jones was only able to make that foolish trade for Roy Williams because he could pay him up front in the uncapped year, so this clearly wasn't some big secret). Now, the NFL has decreed, two years later, that those actions pose "an unacceptable risk to future competitive balance," and these four teams are being punished by the league. Never mind that these teams have made almost unilaterally atrocious decisions, the Saints excluded. The Redskins' cap has been docked $36 million and the Cowboys' $10 million, to be split over the next 2 seasons. The cap space will be redistributed to the rest of the league, excepting the Saints and Raiders who are unaffected either way (to ensure overall player compensation remains the same). You can find all the details here.

In an ESPN-Dallas write-up of this situation for the Cowboys, this line appears: "The NFL didn't like Miles Austin's 2010 contract extension, even though it approved the deal." Hold on while I go throw up or flay someone. THE LEAGUE APPROVED THE DEAL! AND NOW THEY'RE PENALIZING THESE TEAMS FOR BREAKING AN UNWRITTEN RULE! When Roger Goodell was 6 I bet he convinced his younger brother that if he had a bad roll in Monopoly he could get a do-over. That's the only justification for this behavior. That or he really is the dictator I've been making him out to be. See this observation, from the same article: "Goodell is omnipotent, the league's Alpha and Omega, its judge and jury. All must bow before him and kiss his ring -- even Jerry, who pays 1/32 of his salary."

I'm going to make this point again, because I think it bears repeating. These four teams are being punished for acting within the rules, all under the retroactive straw-man argument of competitive balance. It's not a goddamn competitive imbalance at all, though. Every team had this opportunity and only four used it. That there may currently be a competitive imbalance because those teams were able to pay more and keep their current payrolls lower is a moot point, because THOSE RULES DIDN'T APPLY THEN. Roger Goodell is so full of shit. I've been trying to come up with a comp in the business world, but none really work because in no other arena do strictly enforced spending limits exist. Goodell is penalizing four teams for acting in their own rational and legal self-interest; if the fifth amendment applied, Goodell wouldn't be able to get away this. But it doesn't, and so he can. I can't say if the other owners colluded so that only a few took advantage of this loophole or merely pressured Goodell into making this decision, but either way to present it as in the interest of competitive balance is fucking asinine.

Since I like to get bogged down in asides, I'll point out that it's pretty ironic that the NFL is both the exemplar of American sports leagues and the heir to baseball's mantle as the all-American sport, especially (and I'm stereotyping here, but I don't care because I'm right) among the conservative, free-market Tea Party set. In actual fact, the NFL is about as regulatory as you can get, with an extremely controlling centralized bureaucracy and the only major sports league with a true hard cap. Just imagine the outcry if the Fed docked Google money because they hired all the good software designers and left Apple with none. We would scream, rightly, that that's bullshit. That's basically what the NFL has done, and in the process they've further tampered with competitive balance instead of fixed it. In the NBA and MLB, a team can spend above the cap (or luxury tax line), and they will just be forced to pony up some cash. In the NFL, a team cannot exceed the cap under any circumstances. Doesn't sound very free-market to me. 

The NFL's business practices toward its players are underhanded as well, some of them admittedly falling in line with popular American sentiment. Like many American corporations, they've dragged their feet on pensions for players, but the NFL is in the distinct position of having destroyed the livelihood of many of its players. You could argue that that's part of the bargain of playing in the NFL, but the NFL also sat on that health data and didn't move in the interest of player safety. NFL teams also have the right to cut a player at any time and simply void his contract, a right MLB and NBA teams do not have. Even the franchise tag, which restricts player movement and forces them to take a contract with their current team, goes against a broadly held value of the worker's freedom of mobility. And the NFL can function like this because it's a monopoly, because it's not like the Redskins or Cowboys can just up and leave and play in a different league because they're pissed. We're stuck with the NFL like this because there is no other alternative.

The NFL, as constructed, functions as an immovable object. You can make an argument that, especially with declining tv, music, and movie revenue, the live event has never been more important, and the NFL and Super Bowl especially is the champion of live drama. The NFL is flourishing. It is intractable. It is Rome and Goodell is Caesar (pre-dates fascism, I know. I'll work on getting my historical analogies right in the future). 

But there are some chinks in the under-armour. This concussion issue is not going away, and no matter how much Goodell and co. try to push this issue on helmet-to-helmet hits, more and more research is coming out that repeated low-level traumas, such as line play, cause more danger and harm than the big hits. It may not seem like a huge problem now, but I can see a lot of parents pushing their kids toward basketball or other sports because of the fear of concussions. It's becoming an image problem for the league, anathema to Roger Goodell. The Saints' bounties are a problem because they commoditized and incentivized hurting people, but also because they hurt the image of football by confirming what we already know: that football is fundamentally inseparable from violence. Football is no different from boxing in that way.

I'm not implying that football is going to go the way of boxing, but I think Goodell sees the cracks in the facade and that's why he's been so obsessed with maintaining this squeaky clean image of the league. That's why he goes after players who run afoul of the law, even if they're not charged. That's why he's fining players for big hits, even if that's not really the problem. Football is an institution, but so was baseball not so long ago. People will gravitate toward something else, and while Goodell may think that people will appreciate this flimsy, counter-intuitive attempt at competitive balance, I wonder if it will turn people away. What else can stop Goodell from playing by his own rules?

This all just pisses me off. Goodell bowed to the whims of the other owners and once again showed that he was willing to penalize people/teams retroactively. These four teams did nothing wrong and they're being hurt for it. They're being scapegoated. And what's worse is no one can stand up to Goodell. If they criticize him, he can fine any NFL employee for saying anything. He can take away draft picks. Goodell can do whatever the fuck he wants because no one can stop him from doing whatever the fuck he wants.

And you know what? I'm a dupe because I'm gonna forgive him, and I'll still watch the NFL next year because I don't really know how not to watch the NFL. Maybe some day he'll push too far, like the 1994 MLB strike for so many, and maybe football will start declining. But right now, there's no one to hold him accountable, no press to call him on this bullshit (if you think ESPN's coverage isn't influenced by their desire to get games on the network, then you're an idiot) and there's no goddamn alternative and Roger Goodell knows it. Fascist.

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