The NFL Can’t Get Out of Its Own Way

The greatest enemy of the multi-billion dollar sports empire is the guy who runs it.

Tom Brady, arguably the largest star in professional football, will sit out four football games at the start of next season, essentially because he refused to hand over his cell phone for an investigation by the National Football League into whether he knowledgeably instructed the deflation of footballs. The NFL is still unclear whether Brady himself actually gave the instructions or how much he knew about the deflating, but the fact that Brady refused to “cooperate fully” in his own self-incrimination, was evidence enough for the league to suspend him.

This is pure madness.

Since Roger Goodell took over as NFL commissioner in 2006, his first and foremost priority has been “protecting the shield,” meaning protecting the integrity of the league. Goodell’s belief is that the league is sacrosanct. The league is holy. The league is what makes people watch—not the players. Unfortunately for Goodell, the league is what is destroying the game.

Aside from the NFL’s insane inability to actually create a rule book that makes a lick of sense, the commissioner has “protected the shield” by handing down arbitrary suspensions on spurious information, each one designed to make the league seem just and fair (its corporate partners, like ESPN, echo this reasoning). Except there’s no rhyme or reason when it comes to the NFL’s summary judgments. The NFL and its commissioner act like a righteous and vindictive ruler, angry whenever anyone might raise the mildest or most logical of protests (like a players refusal to self-incriminate, which, by the way, is the actual law of the land).

Brady and Sean Payton weren’t punished for infractions, but for their refusal to hand the NFL their heads on a platter.

Since his appointment, Goodell has suspended players for dog-fighting, domestic violence, drunk driving, and battery. These are all fine reasons to suspend someone and dock their pay. However, Goodell’s harshest punishments have been against men who have refused to cooperate with the league in some way. For example, New Orleans coach Sean Payton was suspended for an entire season for his involvement in the Bounty scandal, his involvement in which boiled down to his being unable to provide the league with evidence of the bounties. This is the same reason for Brady’s ban—both men were not willing to provide the league with the evidence they were after.

Brady and Payton weren’t punished for infractions, but for their refusal to hand the NFL their heads on a platter. When it comes to actual crimes, the NFL seems a bit more forgiving. For an assault on his fiancé this off-season, Ravens running back Ray Rice was originally given a two-game suspension. That’s half what Brady was handed for not handing a cell phone over to the league.

The NFL acts to discipline most those it feels to have threatened the league by questioning its unassailability. Brady refused to cooperate fully, so the league sent a message that even its biggest star must kneel before the shield. But that “shield” is only there to protect the image of the league, not to represent any actual integrity.

When a league acts only in the interests of its own image and not the health of the body and bodies it governs, it shouldn’t be surprised when the whole thing begins to rot. And Roger Goodell shouldn’t be surprised when he’s remembered as the commissioner who helped football bring about its own end—all in the pursuit of an image and respectability he never earned.

Photos by Joe Robbins/Getty Images