Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Crime and Punishment in the NFL

"But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken."
Mark 13:24-25

There is weeping and wailing. We have been cast into the outer darkness. The world as we know it has come to an end.

The National Football League has determined that the footballs used by the New England Patriots in their 45-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts were (slightly) underinflated and that this was very likely the result of actions by team personnel, against NFL rules, and that quarterback Tom Brady was likely aware of this and may have orchestrated it. As a result, Brady has been suspended for four games, the team has been fined $1,000,000, and they will lose their first round draft pick in 2016 and their fourth round pick in 2017. And, largely forgotten in the furor, the two locker room guys allegedly responsible for doing the actual deflating have been suspended indefinitely. 

One hardly knows where to begin. 

There are no heroes in this story.

In his letter to Brady and the Patriots, NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent made it clear that what the League was upset with Brady’s attitude. 

"The report documents your failure to cooperate fully and candidly with the investigation, including by refusing to produce any relevant electronic evidence," said Vincent. "Your actions as set forth in the report clearly constitute conduct detrimental to the integrity of and the public confidence in the game of professional football."

The NFL said that the League was taking these actions to preserve “the integrity of the game.” Seriously. The NFL would do well to remember that first, it is in fact a game. And second, they have demonstrated repeatedly and conclusively that they have no integrity whatsoever. Concussions, domestic violence, assaults, drug arrests, sexual assaults, performance enhancing drugs, and the list goes on. The NFL cares about money and image. And they only care about image because it leads to money.

And, sadly, everything we can say about the NFL we could also say about the Patriots. 

The NFL deserves a special award for self-righteousness, but there has been more than enough of that to go around. The usually measured veteran writer Frank Deford put out a podcast on NPR in which he said that Brady’s ego had him searching for any possible way to make up for his declining skills. He wondered what Brady might do when his good looks also deteriorated with age.

I am not really a big fan of Tom Brady. It bothers me that he could not make time to join his teammates when they were honored by President Obama at the Whitehouse. I’m still bothered that he left his pregnant girlfriend when he found Giselle. And I have  always found it annoying that so many sports fans have made invidious comparisons between Brady and his predecessor, Drew Bledsoe. 

The team that Drew Bledsoe inherited was not nearly as good as the one that Brady took over when Bledsoe was injured. He never achieved the championships that Brady has, but he was a very good quarterback.

Brady has been lucky. If a totally unknown defensive back (Malcolm Butler) had not intercepted a pass that should not have been thrown on a play that probably should not have been called, then Brady would not have been the Super Bowl MVP. On the other hand , it takes a lot more than luck to throw 33 touchdowns with only 9 interceptions last season, or to pass for more than 50,000 yards in his career.

But the hatred that Brady gets from around the country is nasty. And stupid. And it has more to do with his success than with any flaws in his character.

But beyond everything else, probably the most disturbing thing in the whole story is that we care so much about something that doesn’t really matter. And, apparently, we can’t help it. In case you haven’t noticed, I can’t help it.

We can make believe that it is a morality tale and that has deep meaning for us as a nation. Perhaps. 

In the most benign sense, it’s entertainment. Like the games themselves. And in that sense, it’s pretty harmless.

But I wish we could generate as much passion for social justice. Income inequality. Racism. Domestic violence. Sexism. Education. World Peace. 

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