This is a new weekly column I’ll be writing for Daily Intelligencer every week moving forward. We’ll be looking at the absurdity of the sports world, but also of course its somehow infinite appeal. Email anything you’d like to talk about at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s try to get through this together.
You think you’ve seen it all, honestly. Sportswriting is a repetitive profession: Every big event by definition is the same big event they just had a year ago. One must be careful not to be too jaded, too lulled by the familiar. (It’s difficult sometimes.) But then something like last Thursday’s surreal, patently disastrous decision by the NFL to fine teams whose players do not stand for the national anthem comes along, and you remember that sports still have the capacity to make your jaw drop — to knock you off your feet. I’m pretty sure it’s what this entire era of sports is going to be remembered for, the thing we’ll try to explain to our grandchildren and fail to. I’m still flabbergasted by it. We can’t be outraged enough.
But this is Roger Goodell’s NFL. I suppose we all should have seen the dumbest possible outcome coming.
If you’ve ever attended an NFL corporate event, the Pro Bowl, the Draft, especially the Super Bowl, you notice something incredibly strange about a disturbingly high percentage of the men (and it’s overwhelmingly men) who are official employees of the NFL itself, the protectors of the Shield: They have patterned themselves after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
That might not seem strange on its face: Every boss in a way tries to make their employees a little like themselves. But NFL events are a constant parade of mini-Goodells. Every credential check-in, every security detail, every middle manager, every dude just there to hand out the gifts bags, they all look and act a little bit like Roger Goodell. They’re all in good shape, first off — not jacked but confidently filling out the bland blue “activewear” polos they’re invariably wearing. They all are a little pasty, like they haven’t seen the sun in a while and don’t plan on doing so anytime soon. They all carry themselves with the same grave self-seriousness regardless of their particular task, handing out lanyards like they’re presiding over a state funeral. But mostly: It’s the thousand-yard stare. They all have the stare. They all are looking vacantly at some indeterminate spot vaguely in the distance, past your shoulder, off into nowhere. You can almost hear the clunk of a car door shutting every time they blink. The lights are on, but nobody’s home. The elevator doesn’t go up to the top floor; it barely makes it past the neck.
That’s the Goodell stare. And that’s the sort of mind at work that leads to a decision like Thursday’s.
Thursday was the moment when the world of sports at last succumbed entirely to the stupidity of everything else happening right now, the moment we stopped pretending there could ever be any sort of temporary recreational escape hatch from the daily shitshow that is real life. It has always been impossible to separate sports from politics, but it’s never been difficult to see why people try to; after all, the last thing I want to think about during a baseball game is Donald Trump. But if the last three years have taught us anything, it’s that Trump has the ability to make every single aspect of American life explicitly about him, an act of force and will that honestly might be the only impressive thing about him. So of course he has now shaped NFL policy. And Roger Goodell’s dim, gaping face is the reason why.
It is important to remember what Goodell said when Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the anthem first got anyone’s attention — and don’t forget, he’d sat down for multiple games before NFL.com reporter Steve Wyche became the first person to actually notice. Here’s Goodell’s first public statement, from way back in September 2016:
I support our players when they want to see change in society, and we don’t live in a perfect society. We live in an imperfect society. On the other hand, we believe very strongly in patriotism in the NFL. I personally believe very strongly in that. I think it’s important to have respect for our country, for our flag, for the people who make our country better; for law enforcement, and for our military who are out fighting for our freedoms and our ideals.
These are all important things for us, and that moment is a very important moment. So, I don’t necessarily agree with what he is doing. We encourage our players to be respectful in that time and I like to think of it as a moment where we can unite as a country. And that’s what we need more, and that’s what I think football does - it unites our country. So I would like to see us focusing on our similarities and trying to bring people together. Players have a platform, and it’s his right to do that. We encourage them to be respectful and it’s important for them to do that. I think it’s important if they see things they want to change in society, and clearly we have things that can get better in society, and we should get better. But we have to choose respectful ways of doing that so that we can achieve the outcomes we ultimately want and do it with the values and ideals that make our country great.
That word salad is the sound of a mouth moving and words evaporating in a puff of dust. Goodell in that statement, one he had nearly two full weeks to craft after the Kaepernick meteor hit his league, is a deer in the middle of the road, staring straight forward and waiting for the car to swerve, either way, doesn’t matter. This has long been the Goodell Doctrine: Say nothing, stand for nothing, do nothing until the bad news passes. Roger Goodell has 32 bosses — the NFL owners — and his only job is to make them happy by keeping the money train rolling. Goodell handles the commissioner job like a crisis-management publicist rather than a CEO; he’s perpetually laying low until the storm passes. He may think — or want to think — that he and the league occupy the apolitical middle of American life, but with its stand-pat, reflexive reverence for tradition of all kinds, Goodell’s NFL is much more the picture of the Silent Majority. Whether the issue is concussions, domestic violence, gambling, or now, inevitably, politics, Goodell is forever a reactionary agent rather than a causational one: He just stands there hoping the car doesn’t hit him. There may never be a more Goodellian statement than, “These are all important things for us, and that moment is a very important moment.” There are sounds coming out of my throat right now, and here are some more, and now am I stopping. It’s just light, limp wind.
If this particular brand of “If we just hang on through this madness, we’ll still all get paid in the end” sounds familiar to you, it should be no surprise that Goodell and the NFL have been flattened by Trump just like Trump’s Republican appeasers in Congress have been. Goodell has treated the monster that Kaepernick unleashed, and that Trump weaponized, as something that’ll go away if he pretends it isn’t there, and this strategy has failed every time he has deployed it. The empty initial public statement angered Kaepernick’s supporters and detractors alike, and that pattern has continued to hold as the temperature has continued to rise.
The NFL hoped the Kaepernick phenomenon would blow over, and when it not only didn’t, but in fact became healthy campaign-trail fodder for Trump (before and after the election), the league dithered long enough to make liberals and conservatives blast the league for its inaction, for entirely opposite reasons. Then, when Trump called kneeling players “sons of bitches” at an Alabama rally last September, players, supportive of Kaepernick or not, kneeled at next week’s games in anger at the president, a statement that the NFL, public-relations-centric as ever, called “unity,” though that unity meant maverick and lunatic Cowboys owner Jerry Jones knelt a week before saying anyone who did so again for his team would be cut.
The NFL reacted to that by quietly changing its anthem policy but then not enforcing it, which just encouraged Trump to keep pumping the issue, even getting Mike Pence and his poor wife in on the action. (The saddest part of Pence’s pre-planned, expensive walkout stunt was that his wife was all decked out in her Colts jersey. If you’re going to make your wife play Kabuki to make your boss happy, the least you can do is not make her wear a jersey but then force her to leave before the game starts. I hope she got to cheer in the car.)
That wishy-washyness led to last week’s “unanimous” decision of the owners, which still attempted to split the baby by saying fines of players were up to the teams, which, again, pits every side against the others in a way that almost begs for more conflict. It is also worth noting that this “unanimous” vote was revealed afterward to be anything but, with several owners announcing that they didn’t actually support the policy, or didn’t plan to enforce it. That might have been because they were surprised by the backlash to it, or, more likely, that they saw a way to give themselves an out while still making Goodell, who always thinks the owners have his back more than they do, look a little foolish.
This was all to appease Trump, who responded, of course, by saying players who didn’t stand for the anthem maybe “shouldn’t be in the country,” assuring that everyone will just dig in a little more, with players now as likely to fight against the policy as Trump is to keep bringing it up every time he’s in front of a crowd. Goodell’s vapid, vaguely corporate rhetorical style is in many ways miles from Trump’s, but just like the president, whenever he opens his mouth, Goodell makes the problem worse by further irritating everyone. In a closed-door meeting back in October between player representatives and owners, audio of which was obtained by the New York Times, several owners clearly were terrified of more Trump-caused headaches. “We’ve got to be careful not to be baited by Trump,” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said. “All Donald needs to do is to start to do this again,” said Bills owner Terry Pegula. The policy last week was an attempt to get Trump to leave the league alone. It worked for about two hours. Players are more dug-in. Owners are now tied to this vague policy. Trump will blow it up because Trump blows things up. And then the NFL will be worse off than it was before. It will be more tied to politics than ever. And everyone, regardless of their politics, will be on the opposite side of the league, because Goodell, as always, has no side. He is, as ever, an amorphous corporate blob.
This is who Goodell is, an empty suit still staring off into the distance, trying to keep the money coming in as long as he can, assured in his place now as the doofus who just made every problem worse by never saying anything at all. Trump hates the league, people who hate Trump hate the league, and neither players nor owners are happy. And this will of course keep going, the perpetual American cycle of Facebook and Roseanne and believing the absolute worst of those who disagree with anybody on anything, this ongoing culture-war logic, omnivorous and all-consuming. Once the chain reaction starts, everyone is incentivized in the most perverse ways to continue it. The NFL not only guaranteed this will keep happening … they created an entirely unnecessary and absolutely un-American policy as some sort of olive branch for a man who sees every branch as a weapon and every argument as a war.
For his part, Goodell just keeps stepping on every rake in the yard. Of course, this is America now. The NFL is America’s new pastime, after all. So why shouldn’t it be as stupid as everything else is today? It is, honestly, only fitting.