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Arbitrary Incompetence All the Way Down: The Roger Goodell Story

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Well, well, well. All the pieces of the puzzle are now in place:

I want to hug and kiss this beautiful story from ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham and take it out to a fancy dinner. Splendidly reported and brutally damning of both the New England Patriots and Roger Goodell, it alleges that the Patriots’ Spygate scandal was worse than anyone imagined—and was actively swept under the rug by the commissioner and the NFL.

You should read the story immediately, but the thrust is this—citing interviews with 90 sources in and around football as well as primary documents, ESPN reports that Bill Belichick and the Patriots videotaped opposing teams’ signals from 40 different games from 2000 through 2007. And when the scandal broke, Goodell did everything in his power to protect Robert Kraft, who was one of his strongest supporters and without whom he would not have been named commissioner. The thesis statement in this story is that the cover-up—and if this report is accurate, the league’s actions can’t be called anything else but a cover-up—so rankled other owners that Goodell came down extra-hard on New England and Tom Brady for Ballghazi as “a makeup call.”

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Ballghazi looks very different in this context. Not merely the NFL’s usual clownish mishandling, it’s the culmination of 15 years of the Patriots bending and breaking the rules, and of pent-up acrimony accrued by Goodell’s chummy relationship with Kraft. The NFL, attempting to trump up the charges against Tom Brady, relied largely on his destruction of evidence—a tactic, it turns out, with which the league’s investigators had firsthand familiarity.

And after all that, the NFL couldn’t even get it to stick.

There was a lot of speculation about this, but Van Natta and Wickersham have confirmed it. We now know why the NFL inflated Ballghazi by leaking erroneous information to its media puke funnels, why they blundered forward with a punishment even after their investigation failed to turn up reliable evidence that the balls were deflated (not least because nobody cared about the issue ex ante), why the punishment imposed was massively disproportionate, why Kraft went along with round 1 of the massively disproportionate punishments, and why Goodell refused to make a deal with Brady even after Judge Berman did everything but rent the Goodyear Blimp and put “I will vacate this punishment” in neon within eyeshot of the NFL’s offices.

The Patriots were guilty of actual, material cheating that was identified at the time by multiple teams. (Not just videotaping but doing stuff like stealing playsheets from the opposing locker room.) Goodell, acting on behalf of the owner to whom he owed his job, covered up the extent of the cheating by destroying evidence and putting pressure on the other teams to stay silent. Goodell did inflict a punishment on the Patriots that was arguably reasonable, but he went out of his way to cover up their reputations.

It’s tempting to say — and many have — that Ballghazi was therefore rough justice. Tempting, but wrong. You don’t make up for past wrongdoing by framing someone who may or may not be guilty of a trivial offense and imposing a massively disproportionate penalty on them. (Even the repeat offender charge doesn’t work in re: Brady; he wasn’t the one videotaping practices or stealing play scripts.) And while I can understand the frustration of the other owners with the special treatment the Patriots received, wanting them to be punished with a trumped-up faux scandal is shortsighted. What happens when another team has a vendetta against you and wants to run it through the cross between Ronald McDonald and Judge Dredd in the commissioner’s office? Ask Sean Payton.

I heard an interesting interview recently with Jay Feely, who’s working for the NFLPA. Asked why the players he agreed to give so much arbitrary power in the hands of Goodell, he cited two things. First, the owners made it clear that the disciplinary process was non-negotiable — the players could accept it or the lockout would last all year. And second, under Tagliabue, the system had worked tolerably well — there wasn’t the same pattern of compounding arbitrary punishments. The lesson to the player is that you shouldn’t rely on arbitrary powers being applied fairly no matter who’s in charge (although it’s not clear they have the leverage to do anything about it in any case.) But one lesson for the owners should be that a completely arbitrary disciplinary system isn’t really in anyone’s interest in the long run, no matter who might benefit in the short term. Even if the owners find a less buffoonish replacement for Goodell, they should restore some independence to the process — something that works perfectly well for other leagues.

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