Let’s be clear: the recent raid on five NFL teams by the Drug Enforcement Agency to see if teams were doubling as illegal painkiller dispensaries has little to do with concerns about how our nation’s Sunday heroes Novocain themselves for gridiron glory. The fact that the NFL and their teams of doctors and nurses give out prescription pills like Halloween candy and break out syringes to top off sessions of physical therapy has been public knowledge for over forty years. Player memoirs like the 1970s Out of their League, by Cardinal linebacker Dave Meggyesy, and Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Peter Gent’s semi-autobiographical bestseller North Dallas Forty, addressed such things with a nonchalant frankness bordering on the blasé. These practices are also discussed by former players with a shrug as just the price they pay for keeping the trains—those same trains carrying billions of dollars in revenue—running on schedule. Players tend to come from poverty and play an average of just three and a half years on largely non-guaranteed contracts. They will do what they have to do to get out there on Sunday, and teams will be only too happy to oblige.
The real story here is that these raids happened at all. The NFL employs twenty-six full-time lobbyists and spends about $1.5 million per election cycle to make sure that the feds leave the league alone and no one looks too closely at how the sausages are made. Pro football is supposed to be an entity that operates in a magical constitution-free zone of antitrust exemptions and tax breaks, with numbing opiates in every locker. But those days appear to be as dead as playoff hopes in Oakland.
A combination of the bumbling Clouseau-esque stewardship of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, public pressure and a never-ending cascade of scandals has created a relationship between the NFL and the federal government described to me by a hill lobbyist as “something south of toxic.” In September they hired democratic operative Cynthia Hogan to head their lobbying operation in an effort at making their relationship with this administration at least better than poisonous, but this is beyond Cynthia Hogan. Hell, this is beyond Olivia Pope. The federal government is out for a chunk of Roger Goodell’s flesh and the evidence of this is there for anyone who cares to look.
Over the last three months, we have seen the Federal Communications Commission—a body appointed by the Obama administration—both rescind the decades-old NFL blackout rule and threaten to ban the dictionary-defined slur that brands the Washington football team from being uttered over broadcast television. We have seen rage by public officials over how the NFL and especially Roger Goodell has ignored or even covered up issues of violence against women. We have seen Goodell again and again, whether in the Ray Rice domestic violence case or in his recent ruling on Adrian Peterson’s season-long suspension for hitting his child with a stick, careening from one crisis to the next, absent of a moral compass while thumbing his nose at the Players Association, public pressure or common sense. We have seen the open questioning on Capitol Hill of the NFL corporate office’s tax-free status, something estimated to save the league $10 million dollars a year—a move championed by now-retired Republican senator from Oklahoma Tom Coburn. We have also seen the unthinkable: senators asking the “Emperor has no clothes” question of why the NFL gets any special treatment at all.
When politicians see the once bullet-proof NFL shield, with all of its cultural capital, as a target for scoring easy political points, it speaks volumes all by itself. This humiliating DEA raid is really just a dash a salt on an already simmering stew. Goodell’s league has long carried itself like the sporting equivalent of Goldman-Sachs; simply too big to fail. Those days of anti-accountability are over. Roger Goodell and the collection of owners that pull his string are failing at the most fundamental task of a league built on the broken bodies of its players: keeping people’s attention firmly focused on the field. Now people—and politicians—are looking at what is behind the curtain and scrutiny does them no favors. It is perfectly understandable why many would see conflict between the federal government and the powers that be in the world of football as the Kang vs. Kodos of political battles. But this is a sport that is being victimized less by big government than by their own arrogance and negligence. Whether we are talking about the covered-up dangers of youth football, the plantation economy of the NCAA, or the corporate culture of the NFL, the feds are not done with the people who run this sport. Not by a longshot.