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The NFL has a power problem

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The NFL doesn't seem to understand the scope or seriousness of its several ongoing scandals, and its mishandling of those has proven that out. The bigger problem, though, is that none of the unconscionable things we've seen in the last week are inconsistent with the NFL's values.

Note: this is current through only the Minnesota Vikings' defense of Adrian Peterson and the return of John Abraham, a week after considering retirement due to severe memory loss, to the Arizona Cardinals. It will necessarily become more out of date as new terrible things happen. It probably already is.

The NFL has never really known the difference between power and strength, or cared to know it. This isn't unique to the NFL, given that this confusion more or less defines every dysfunctional macro-scale conversation in America. But the extent to which the NFL has worked not to understand this important thing seems unique. Everything the NFL is and does and sells is based on this proud bit of not-knowing. The limits of this defiance can be seen everywhere in the NFL's alternately swaggering and weirdly passive mishandling of the first, terrible two weeks of the season.

This confusion is strange because the NFL gives us a high-definition object lesson in the difference between the two every week. Strength, in various pyrotechnic shapes and sizes and guises, is what NFL players display in eruptive technicolor on Sundays. Power is the thing that, when brought to bear by various softer-bodied bosses, ensures that those strong men play on non-guaranteed contracts whose terms are stunted by an artificial and multiply perverse market.

It's an oversimplification, but try this: strength is the capacity to do things, and power is the coercive capacity to force others to do them.

Or, if you prefer a more specific simile, power is what a man of Ray Rice's stature and fame has on a woman like Janay Rice, and what a father has on a 4-year-old child; it is the ability to do harm, but it is also what lets him do it, an insulating privilege that approaches impunity. That privilege can be seen in Rice getting placed into a pretrial diversion program for which he would not appear eligible. It can be seen clearly in the soft initial punishment Rice received from a commissioner who knew exactly what Rice did, and in the Ravens mustering the full might of their in-house public relations team to pour the foundation of a narrative that would, in time, leave Rice with a clean public record -- "missed two games in 2014 with a domestic issue, overcame that adversity as he had so many times in his career, going on to lead the team in rushing with [yards TBD]." The Minnesota Vikings' decision to make a similarly obtuse and willful stand after Adrian Peterson's indictment on charges of child abuse suggests that this wildly defective crisis-management model is not yet as discredited in the eyes of the NFL as it is everywhere else.

There was a feeling of nauseous inevitability hanging heavy over the Rice case from the start, a resigned sense of how things would probably go and then bleak non-shock at them going just that way -- the light punishment in the court for the abuser (and the comparative abandonment of the abused woman to her abuser's mercies), the lighter punishment from the league (and the subtle shifting of blame in the direction of the abused woman), the forgiveness of a powerful local organization that would make no more powerful statement of dismay about the whole horrible thing than owner Steve Bisciotti's "how sad we all are that he tarnished his image." That helpless feeling, shot through with déjà vu, is what it feels like to watch power in action. We see power operating now in reverse, if with the same pitilessness, as the circumstances shift. The constant is that power defends the powerful, but ultimately defers only to its own interests.

Strength, on the other hand, is the absolute inverse of everything that Rice did to the woman who's now his wife in that Atlantic City elevator, and everything that the NFL has done about it since then. Strength is what power aspires to, but mostly winds up parodying in its overdetermined aping of it. Strength is something more brave and responsible and admirable than power, and seldom seen alongside it. Strength is something we have not yet seen, here.


Roger Goodell's entire reign has been based on the assumption that fans not only admire the virtuosic strength players display on Sundays, but feel a deeper reverence for and more profound allegiance to power. In this cosmology, the NFL is itself the most high; fans may care about a team or a player, but their ultimate allegiance is to the dominion of the National Football League.

The bet is this, basically: fans might fantasize about being as fast and strong and gifted as (say) Cam Newton, but what they really want is to be Cam Newton's boss; they admire the impossible things that Cam Newton can do, but aspire most to make Cam Newton do whatever they tell him to do.

We see this when the NFL co-brands and produces a feature film about -- of all possible football things that might work on screen -- the shirtsleeved middle-aged wheeler-dealer GM of the Cleveland fucking Browns. It's there in ads in which grown men in NFL pajama tops are turned into literal superheroes by switching to the appropriate satellite TV provider, and it's the defining aspect of fantasy football's executive fantasia.

It is the only thing that explains the spasmodic eagerness with which NFL media praises the league for Acting Swiftly And Decisively in disciplining Ray Rice (for the second time) or the Panthers for deactivating convicted domestic abuser Greg Hardy (months after his conviction). The general sycophancy of the NFL media, and its reflexive deference to the league's branded imperative, owes not to commentators being bought off, but to their having bought into the NFL's overarching ethos.

In this reordered cosmos, the person that NFL fans would naturally most aspire to be would be not the strongest player, but the most powerful and unaccountable boss. It is a strange universe that would put a replacement-level functionary like Roger Goodell on a holy throne, and array the rapacious swells that own NFL teams around him as saints. We are seeing, now, how very strange it is, and how poorly it works.


The question that keeps recurring, after each of the NFL's unaccountable evasions and unconvincing and thoroughly hedged semi-lies and general abstraction, is how the NFL could be so ghoulishly, unbelievably wrong about all this. The new bafflements pile up fast, but all converge, finally, on the question of how the NFL expects anyone to believe any of this shit.

There is, I think, a smaller answer embedded in a bigger one. The smaller answer is that the NFL expects you to believe it because it is the NFL; the bigger answer is that this is what the NFL really believes. The entire Ray Rice disgrace -- and the concurrent passivity and recession in the face of other recent scandals -- has been, all along, an expression of the NFL's values in action. It has been illustrative, when taken in concert with things like the NFL's handling of its brain injury epidemic and its anti-labor militancy, in showing us a fuller picture of the things that the NFL deems less important than the lucrative but increasingly untenable status quo -- the quality and integrity of the game itself; the health and safety of the players who played in those games; the health and safety of abused women relative to the gameday availability of those (slightly less fungible) players.

What has long been implicit about the NFL is erupting into the explicit -- that the business of the NFL is business, and that nothing and no one, no law or ethical obligation or belief, and no civilian's well-being, can mean more than that. This manifests as a sort of concentric deference to the more powerful party -- the abusing athlete over the abused non-athlete, and then as necessary the temporarily embarrassed brand over the athlete, and finally the commissioner himself over all. This is toxic and cynical, but this is what the NFL is selling, to itself and us: the fantasy of command, of power delinked from any anchoring obligation or accountability.

Throwing a game-winning touchdown, or swimming off the dime past a pair of agile giants to prevent that pass from being thrown -- that is to be supernaturally present and godly, and that is beautiful and rare and worth watching. But that fades, and starts fading even in the moment after its first bright burst. The real play is to be the man taking the hard line in a contract negotiation, firing off high-fives in an owner's suite, pragmatically cutting that ex-god loose when his divine skills diminish, or when (as an anonymous front office source attests) the ex-god's irresponsibility or immaturity or selfishness just becomes too much. The players are great fun to watch, Our Modern Gladiators to be sure, but the thing is to own them, to experience their brilliance not so much vicariously as from above, from a luxury suite of one's own. It is to cast that thumbs-down, more in sorrow than in anger, because no one can be bigger than the team.

Except, of course, for the untouchable few who are bigger than the team, and cannot be fired. Think of the dynamic expressed in the infamous exchange between Dallas Cowboys president Tex Schramm and Gene Upshaw during an early NFL labor battle, in which Schramm is reported to have said to the All-Pro opposite him, "You guys are cattle, and we're the ranchers. And ranchers can always get more cattle." Roger Goodell works for the ranchers; that singular, cynical obligation is the only explanation for what the NFL has and has not done in the face of these crises.

One half of that binary is worth significantly more per pound than the other, and is a stronger and more graceful creature. The other half 1) is human, and 2) really enjoys the way cattle meat tastes. The NFL's actions and inactions suggest that it still believes that appetite will be enough, even as what we consume goes about making us sick.

We can see, with every new futility issuing from the NFL's head office -- one determined pivot after another, until what we see is more or less the same thing as flailing -- just how hollow that fantasy is, and how corrosive is the self-justification that lubricates it. The NFL is rich and powerful, still. But we see, now, that it is also empty; that it is capable of anything in the service of itself, and incapable of even basic things that do not serve that end. We see, more than anything and more each day, how power has made the NFL so pitiably weak.