There is something bracing about being reminded that there are real people who see the NFL as the NFL sees itself. They are indeed out there—this is a big and wrongly righteous world, after all—talking about football in the NFL's own grandiose and super-stilted syntax. It's roughly the difference between meeting someone who is a big professional wrestling fan and meeting someone who actually acts like The Rock. The first person enjoys overstated sports-like entertainment. The latter is severely peeling off his shirt at the supermarket and flaring his nostrils wildly because he noticed Fanta isn't on sale anymore.
Even if we grant that the New England Patriots using under-inflated footballs while stomping the Indianapolis Colts out of the AFC Championship was somewhat more offensive than paying retail for a two-liter of orange soda, there has still been a great deal of overdetermined over-emoting in response to it. For the most part, all this noise is coming from the members of the Hot Take Community, who are paid to make this sort of overwrought noise. It's their job, and they're doing it.
This is all the more impressive given that the NFL has spent this entire long season tumbling, piss-drunk and pantsless, down a long spiral staircase, declaiming all the while on integrity and The NFL Way. Any expression of how frequently and floridly the NFL has shown its collective ass this season would require the use of scientific notation, and yet somehow—even when presented with a story as authentically ridiculous and utterly uncomplicated as this—the conversation about it is still conducted in the same freezer-burned Sorkin-scented vocabulary of righteous purpose.
This is pretty silly, honestly. For all the things that are still unknown, about this case and every other one of the NFL's many scandals, the question of integrity is pretty much settled business where the NFL is concerned. It is a thing the league likes to talk about, and is unwilling to pay for; it's an undisputed brand truth, and thus also mostly a lie. And so when we hear, again, that the NFL is intent on getting this right, and protecting the integrity of the game, the first instinct is either a muffled laugh or an un-muffled one.
It's not that these are bad things for the NFL to want. Cheating, even cheating as mundane and mainstream as this, is uncool; rules are rules. It's just that all this righteous huff-and-puff from the NFL—an entertainment brand that thinks it is a powerful nation-state, run by a defective Epcot "Hall of Presidents" droid that believes itself to be an actual head of state—comes across as flabby, obvious satire.
And yet here they still are: the designated khaki-fied heralds assuring us of the league's sense of urgency on this matter. The peevish chorus of columnists treating this latest bit of Belichick-ian gamesmanship like a matter of national import, as opposed to more amusingly amoral a-holery from one of the sport's all-time amusingly amoral a-holes. It's not different, but it feels different. Maybe this is what transition looks like: everyone knows the NFL's grandiosity and integrity fetish are laughable and false, but no one has quite figured out a new way to talk about the league.
The game balls that the New England Patriots supplied for their own use (due to some peculiar and outdated NFL rules and in defiance of all reason, this is how it is done) were manipulated after the usual inspection such that they were less-inflated and therefore easier to hold than NFL rules allow. The Colts noticed, referees tested the balls and found them in violation, and removed them from play; during the second half, when the Patriots shredded the Colts, they were reportedly using regulation, ref-approved footballs to do it. Belichick said Thursday that he has no idea how the balls got deflated, and maybe he doesn't. We don't know what happened.
We can be much more certain that the NFL's response to this will be characteristically purposeful and characteristically buffoonish, and be centered around disciplinary action. The blue-ribbon panel that Goodell will bring together to investigate the ball-deflating—separate and distinct from the blue-ribbon panel investigating whether it's smart for teams to be allowed to groom their own game balls, but probably also headed by a former Senator or something—will get to the bottom of it sometime. Goodell will hold a press conference and appear purposeful and chastened, promise that this will be taken very seriously. The debate will turn to whether he did a good job or not, and I will probably write another column about how he's like Teddy Ruxpin or whatever.
But there's an alternative. The NFL could just change this weirdo rule so that all the game balls are handled by the officials and only the officials, as with the footballs used for kicking; it could regulate the substances that quarterbacks are allowed to use to alter the balls or—and hear me out on this—it could also not. A simple rule that replaces the century-old congeries of micro-rules would go a long way towards clarifying this and many other NFL ambiguities, and is probably the least likely outcome of all this. The NFL can't do a lot of the things it tries to do, but it can change a rule and then enforce it, and that's probably enough in this case. Instead, we will have commissions and official reports and rafts of updated talking points.
It's worth wondering who ever wanted the NFL to be this way. The impractical grandiosity of it—the idea that the NFL needs to Stand For Something, instead of actually doing the basic things it's supposed to do—suggests that this call is coming from inside the house; only the NFL would think that prioritizing excellence over competence is a good way for the NFL to be. Think of the NFL as an organization actually dedicated to integrity and excellence—in terms of accountability, honesty, fairness, and so on—and it is really not doing a very good job at all. Think of it as an organization staffed by people who have been in the same smug-stupid culture for so long that they believe integrity and excellence to be words for "whatever we just did," and it's a lot easier to understand.
Lose the NFL's pomp and rum-dummy-dum rhetoric, and we see the NFL as what it is: a moderately skanky business concern selling us something that is both bad for us and extremely addictive. The NFL is welcome to use its delusion however it wants, just as people are welcome to talk about it in the NFL's own language if they wish. But, as serious as Bill Belichick is about football—and the great gray recession of his personality suggests that this is an acid seriousness that opens onto a big, mean void—he clearly does not see or think about the NFL this way.
He, and maybe we, can see a rulebook that's too big and too dimly understood and too lazily mis-enforced to constrain his intellect and ambition. He sees a game that is bigger and weirder than any authority that would attempt to govern it. He sees how soft, stupid, and self-regarding the NFL truly is, and then he does whatever he wants, secure in the knowledge that no one can really stop him from doing it. He innovates in thrilling ways and cheats in trivial ones for the same reason, and it's the reason that people climb Everest.
There is nothing that says we have to like this about Belichick, or respect the amoral arrogance of it. But we might as well acknowledge that he understands the NFL more clearly than the NFL understands itself, and borrow some of that instrumentalism for our own purposes. We might as well see the NFL as Belichick does—something to play around with for as long as it's amusing, and something we do not need to take nearly as seriously as it takes itself.