Sports and politics are now virtually indistinguishable.
Appearing before a blue NFL banner in his dark suit and blandly inoffensive tie as cameras whirred and a nation embraced yet another distraction, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the son of a senator, did his best impersonation of a politician seeking to apologize for mistakes made on his watch. He was President Bill Clinton without the charisma or the responsibility, a walking and talking piñata for the media to whack on a nationally televised Friday afternoon spectacle.
Goodell’s words were those of a politician speaking to a nation of idiots. He was concise, clear and lacking in complexity. “I got it wrong,” Goodell said, before later saying, “Now, I will get it right.” Then, as if we needed to be reminded once more, Goodell continued, “The same mistakes can never be repeated.” Again, just to make it clear, Goodell intoned, “We will get our house in order.”
We’ve reached a post-modern place in society where the sports we embrace to escape politics are now virtually indistinguishable from the politics most of us hate. Goodell has hired an independent investigator from the FBI — whose independence was challenged by the media on Friday. He was asked multiple times whether he had the support of the owners, football’s version of the Senate, and the NFL’s relationship with sponsors was drilled.
In order to fix the mess, Goodell promised committees, accountability and new, improved policies, the sacred talking points of politicians for generations. Football meets Washington, D.C.: Roger Goodell, the president of American sports, getting grilled like what he does actually matters. The show was substantial enough to make you think Goodell had a job that really mattered. Instead of, you know, being in charge of the nation’s greatest distraction, watching footballs fly through the air.
It was hard to watch this press conference and not roll your eyes. We’re all eager to blame the politicians or the sports figures for the messes that surround them because it lets us all off easily, allows us to avoid the blame. Increasingly, I think it’s our own national stupidity that creates so many of these situations. Why do our politics stink? Because most smart people already know how they’re going to vote, so political battles turn into a challenge to convince the dumbest and most easily influenced people to support one side or other.
That’s what this entire charade was all about, convincing the idiots on social media that Roger Goodell cares.
So, too, with the NFL.
That’s what this entire charade was all about, convincing the idiots on social media that Goodell cares. He got it wrong. Now he will get it right. It’s public relations as a children’s book; you really can’t simplify things enough. Our national discourse has devolved to the point where we’re headed for the day when a politician or a sports figure walks out in front of us all and simply holds up a frownie face, throws it to the side and replaces it with a smiley face. Then asks you to like his statement on Facebook.
Somehow an opportunity to examine extreme rates of violence in this country and decide how to deal with them has turned into a national drama — should he stay or should he go now? You almost wish there was a soundtrack to accompany the absurdity. Everyone is so ANGRY and OFFENDED and OUTRAGED that no one ever stops to realize that we all look like a bunch of idiots. Somehow Goodell’s response to an act of player domestic violence has turned into a national whodunit, “How to Get Away With Inadequate Discipline” on ABC this fall.
Somewhere former NBA Commissioner David Stern, who let Kobe Bryant play after he had been charged with rape, had to be drinking a beer and thinking, “Holy hell, thank God nobody cared about domestic violence in 2004.” The same is probably true for the commissioners of the NHL and Major League Baseball, leagues that have allowed domestic abusers to play without missing a game and without creating a bit of response. Why did Goodell think that a two-game suspension of Ray Rice for domestic violence made sense? Probably because it was the most substantial punishment that any player had ever received from any league for domestic violence.
What Goodell didn’t count on was there being a video. You can get away with pretty much anything in America today so long as there isn’t an audio or video recording of you doing wrong. If that happens, look out. You’re screwed. Once the video went public, there was no room for thought or analysis. Somebody had to be to blame. Although, interestingly enough, not the guy who actually knocked out his wife.
Nope, it was Goodell. He was to blame. GET HIM! Not the New Jersey prosecutor who gave a sweetheart deal to Rice that less than one percent of all those charged with domestic violence received. We know that he saw the video of Rice knocking out his fiancee. But he’s not famous, and it is too complicated for the Twitter mob to go after someone who is not famous.
No one seems to realize that the NFL has a lower rate of domestic violence than the rest of the country. Let me repeat that in all caps. THE NFL HAS A LOWER RATE OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE THAN THE REST OF THE COUNTRY. The NFL merely reflects our national problem, it doesn’t cause it.
The NFL didn’t get in trouble because of Ravens fans, it got in trouble because there’s a video of a woman getting knocked out and the American public is too stupid to read a report about a woman being knocked out and picture what that looks like. They needed to see a video of it.
Social media’s sudden obsession with the NFL’s rate of domestic violence is akin to an Internet-wide obsession with the DUI arrest rate in New Hampshire. Yeah, people get arrested in New Hampshire for DUIs. That’s because the whole nation gets arrested for DUIs. It’s not because New Hampshire is doing anything particularly bad when it comes to DUIs. In fact, they also have a lower rate of DUI arrests than the rest of the nation. But if enough people got angry about the rate of DUIs in New Hampshire, then the governor would come on television and do the exact same thing that Goodell just did: express contrition and remorse and beg for your forgiveness while promising investigations and committees and new policies.
If you want to know what’s really changed, it’s this: the local media has become the national media. Whereas in years past most player arrest stories never become national news, now they do. Why does that matter? Because local fans are amoral — they don’t care about their favorite teams having players arrested. They want to win. In pursuit of winning, local fans will forgive anything. Hell, they’ll even put up a statue to a man charged with double murder.
So the leagues got used to players committing felonies left and right and no one caring. Witness the Baltimore Ravens fans cheering Rice after they knew he knocked out his wife. The NFL didn’t get in trouble because of Ravens fans, it got in trouble because there’s a video of a woman getting knocked out and the American public is too stupid to read a report about a woman being knocked out and picture what that looks like. We needed to see a video of it.
So we saw the video. And then the American public needed someone to blame for the video. And that man was Goodell. So now Goodell just did what people who get blamed for things do: He had a press conference and took the blame. Just like every politicians always does. People still are seething with rage, angry at the way the press conference went.
But that all misses the point. What we really should be angry with is how stupid so many Americans are. But, guess what, the American public is never to blame for anything. It’s always someone else’s fault. Even if, deep down, our national stupidity is the root cause of everything.
Why did Goodell, the president of American sports, treat us like such complete idiots Friday? Because he correctly judged his audience.