Roger Goodell has determined that refusing to give him your cellphone is twice as bad as battering a woman unconscious in a casino elevator. Granted, it's not as bad as a really serious transgression, like having an untreated addiction to alcohol, or smoking pot, or, God forbid, tarnishing the "integrity" of NFL regulations by attempting to make money while an indentured servant of the NCAA. That kind of stuff should get you north of a six-game suspension, and ideally, a season off to sit shame-faced in an isolation tank until the Players Union can break the door down. No, deflating footballs and then having the temerity not to cooperate with Scooter Libby's attorney, is worth a four game suspension—equal to the punishment meted out to an accused serialrapist, once reduced by Goodell out of a sense of fair play. Of course, this all assumes that one suspension has any relation to another, that the NFL's shadow justice system holds up to its own logic—it of course does not.
How else to explain the decision out of Park Avenue to suspend New England Patriots quarterback and fragrant soapstone Tom Brady, amidst a farrago of forfeited draft picks, massaged firings, and a million dollar fine? After a weekend of deep contemplation, spent conferring with his fellow "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D," Goodell bit his lip, put his hand on Patriots owner Robert Kraft's dwarvish shoulder, and laid down his entire "this hurts me more than it does you" spiel. The response from the Boston sports sty was predictably ferocious and nonsensical, alleging a dark conspiracy against the Pats which anyone south of Jamaica Plain will find, uh, wicked fucking stupid. Goodell, who owes his obscenity of a salary to the good graces of the most powerful owner in the league, "Assistant Commissioner" Kraft, would love nothing more than for the Patriots to be the face of American football. With their telegenic (read: white) marquee quarterback, meaningless but high-toned "Patriot Way," and unvarnished record of one whole day without a new Aaron Hernandez indictment, this is the kind of team Rog wants kids in London and Toronto watching.
So why the brain-dead power stroke against Brady, whom the Wells Report could not definitively tie to the deflations? Put aside the fact that Brady is one hundred percent guilty as charged, and has now been exposed as an inept liar who threw his dutiful deflationary gophers to the wolves. As Drew Magary notes, for Goodell, a control freak who is obsessed with perceived slights from players against the authority of "The Shield," "the greatest crime of all is defying authority." As I said elsewhere, Brady was going to be punished as much for not spilling his guts or claiming contrition as he was going to be for any actual cheating. Indeed, given the lack of a smoking gun tying Brady to the deflated balls in that AFC Championship game, he was really punished more for his intransigence.
But I don't think this fully explains the verve, the ardor, the brow-furrowing relish which Goodell had for this fourth-rate scandal, a passion even more cartoonishly rendered by the mainstream sports media. In short, as with the specter of piped-in crowd noise, or dastardly in-game text messaging, Deflategate is a "perfect little scandal" over which Goodell (and Troy Aikman and Michael Wilbon and the rest) can pontificate over without affecting the bottom line of a business unrivaled in sports history. The only nerve Deflategate touches is the national hatred and resentment of the Patriots as cheaters, which, besides being almost universally relatable, is catnip for any producer in Bristol who needs an hour of fresh shouting every morning.
It's a safe scandal, because it is a small spectacle burnishing an enormous spectacle; there is a sense of unreality, reading text messages complaining about Tom Brady as if he's the office Lumbergh, or catching the ball boy unsure whether he used a urinal or a stall. In wrestling terms, prosecuting a patently silly and weird Deflategate would not be breaking kayfabe; it would be the strutting, grandiose Mr. McMahon levying the punishment, not actual corporate titan and billionaire Vincent K. McMahon. A sideshow—of fevered investigations and Masshole personality crises and interminable debates over "legacy"—that is good for business, at least when your business is entertainment.
Deflategate should, ideally, force nobody above the age of 12 to question their long-held beliefs about the business of football. There is a dark obverse to this: far more squalid and depraved crimes occur every day within the league, to be wished away and forced down the memory hole. The aforementioned and new indictment of Aaron Hernandez for the shooting of a possible murder witness was utterly eclipsed today in the news—perhaps the only thing the Patriots have to be happy about. It would be easier to explain away that "gangster in the huddle" as one particularly bad apple, if 70 other NFL players hadn't been arrested since the start of 2014.
Anyone who watched the Ray Rice elevator video saw the spectacle dissipate in a flash; the sharp violence of the video, the reality of it, cut through. Examining the startlingly high incidence of domestic violence and sexual assault which seems to plague pro football, it is hard not to think of such crimes as being not merely linked to the gridiron, but somehow intrinsic to the men this sport attracts, a sport which inevitably destroys the bodies and minds of its players. Let Deflategate dominate the news, with the NFL showing itself tough on whatever they define as illegal. It's preferable to a real scandal breaking out, calling into question anything fundamental to a sport which is, ultimately, a game of highly organized violence.
I suspect the sport will somehow survive. In the meantime, a young man named Jimmy Garoppolo will get the start Week One for the Patriots. Brady will have some time off to sit and think about his sport. Perhaps he'll think about when he was a young man, when he was a second-stringer in the NFL. Perhaps he'll think about the day a Boston hero named Drew Bledsoe was hit so violently, it nearly tore his heart.