It doesn't matter, really, because Roger Goodell is the one person employed by NFL owners who cannot be fired for losing all the time. But it's worth mentioning all the same: Thursday's Federal Court ruling vacating Goodell's four-game suspension of Tom Brady for his maybe-sorta Deflategate-related misconduct dropped the NFL's record to 0-4 in arbitration related league suspensions. If Goodell were a quarterback who started a season with this many decisive and self-created defeats, stories would've been running for weeks in which coordinators were quoted talking about how much Ryan Fitzpatrick's teammates trust him and how sharp he's looked in practice. The coach would allow—in that heavily qualified cop-syntax that NFL coaches enjoy—that making a change is not at all off the table.
That is not happening, here. Change is, as always, off the table where Goodell and the NFL is concerned. Goodell—one of the very few people in the NFL with a guaranteed contract—will be paid more than twice as much this season than Aaron Rodgers, whose $22 million salary is the NFL's highest. This despite the fact that Rodgers is more convincing as a be-khaki'ed goof trying to buy insurance in State Farm offices populated entirely by the mentally infirm and forgotten "Saturday Night Live" characters than Goodell is as the NFL commissioner, and Roger Goodell actually is the NFL commissioner. But Roger Goodell—unlike Aaron Rodgers, and unlike anyone but the 32 very wealthy men on whose behalf he serves—does not have to win, or even be right, to keep his job. He just has to keep doing the thing he does, which as it happens is the only thing that he is qualified to do.
It certainly looks embarrassing for the NFL and for Roger Goodell when a Real Life Law Judge rules the league's latest attempt at corporate justice out of court, and exposes it as wildly and hilariously and childishly out of order. The tone of Judge Richard Berman's decision overturning Brady's suspension is less impassioned than confounded. It's not just that Goodell's punishment was wildly out of keeping with the previous discipline for this sort of thing, it's that no one involved with the league was able to give a decent explanation as to how this punishment was deemed appropriate.
It should not be shocking that repeating "it goes to the integrity of the game" in your most impassioned Harrison Ford voice works better in the court of public opinion than it does in the court of an actual judge. But that first part—the way it sounds, and the way it feels—is the reason it will not be shocking when this happens again, either in the NFL's inexorable appeal of the ruling or whenever Goodell brings his singularly thumbheaded disciplinary approach to bear on the NFL's next real or manufactured scandal. It will happen again, and neither Roger Goodell nor the NFL will change their approach when it does. Neither the league nor Goodell will absorb this defeat as an embarrassment, or a lesson, or anything but a temporary miscarriage of justice. They will fight it, and they will fight the next one the same way, and they will probably lose that one, too. For Roger Goodell and the NFL's power types, it's about the performance of authority more than the effective application of it. You can't lose, really, if you're only ever trying to look like a winner.
To be fair, it's not really about the performance of authority, either. The NFL cares about making money, which it does very well. And as long as those billions of dollars provide the climate-controlled comfort, the NFL can safely continue to clomp around in dad's work shoes and talking in its grown-up boss voice about how You Need To Do A Good Job, Not A Bad Job. That all of the NFL's ruling baby boomers are now great big adult boys might change the tenor of this particular round of pretend-time, but it has done little to make it any more serious.
The ultimate luxury that power provides is the chance not to care, and the NFL's power elite exist in just that sort of pure and unaccountable blitheness. They are never embarrassed, because they cannot be embarrassed. They do and say whatever dumb, cynical shit they want, because they can do and say whatever dumb, cynical shit they want. For all the things that Roger Goodell and his paymasters don't know—or want to know—they know that much. You know the rest.
When we think of the failures of the boomers' weaponized If It Feels Good, Do It worldview, we tend to focus on actual sybaritic excess—think of the toxic hornball chuckleheads that the University of Minnesota installed atop its athletic department, or the attention-thirsty boosters and blowhards that conspired to turn Rutgers' athletic department into a failed state. Well, that or the way their generation jerry-rigged an entire ethical system and political economy that justified their every shortsighted self-flattering selfishness, and then made it someone else's fault when it came time to deal with the check. But, as boomers have aged into power, they've discovered that easy virtue feels as good, feels maybe even better, than a zipless fuck or a tax cut, and that it doesn't preclude helping yourself to another round of either.
From the beginning, that easy virtue—the ecstasy of sanctimony and the cheap buzz of telling someone no—has been what Deflategate was about. The owners leaned on Goodell to throw the book at Brady, despite a lack of precedent or decisive evidence. Goodell, who always has the book in his hand anyway, and who I keep comparing to Teddy Ruxpin for a reason, did what he was told, which happens to be his reflex. And so the NFL threw millions of dollars away on an investigation that can most generously be described as Many Pages Long, and refused to trim its sails or back off its bizarre discipline or even negotiate in decent faith with the other side. A small-bore problem that could have been solved with a fine (and eliminated forever with a simple rule change) devolved into a Zoolanderian pose-off between a bunch of righteous pink billionaires, exactly none of whom stood to lose anything.
In some sense, the events of this week gave us the best possible outcome—the actual games, which are the only part of the NFL that's bearable, let alone enjoyable, will kick off as usual next Thursday, with all the relevant players in place. Mistakes were made along the way, and they were the same mistakes—overreach and overdetermination, stuffy fatuity and basic dumb-o laziness—that the mistake-makers always make. Lessons were not learned, because this is not a lesson-learning group of people. We figure ourselves out through our mistakes; we get things right by remembering the ways in which we've gotten them wrong. This works pretty well, relative to the alternatives. But it doesn't work for people who cannot conceive, and will never believe, that they are anything but blamelessly, righteously right.