Speaking to a room of rookie NFL players in 2014, NFL Hall of Famer and ESPN broadcaster Cris Carter said that these young men needed to make sure they had “a fall guy in their crew”: someone to take the blame if you have run afoul of the law. His exact words: “If you are gonna have a crew, one of them fools got to know he’s going to jail.”
His comments have touched off a wave of hand-wringing from ESPN, the NFL, and Carter himself. Defenders of Carter, and there are very few, have said that many of these young men are “products of rough environments” and Carter—was just trying to speak to them on “their level.” Yet this narrative gets the story entirely backward. First and foremost, NFL players come from a diversity of backgrounds, and treating a rookie symposium, packed disproportionately with young black men, like it’s an episode of Scared Straight speaks volumes about how the NFL sees its own players. For every rookie that comes from a rough background, there are many who do not. But the NFL doesn’t see the many. They only see an undifferentiated mass of potential black criminality. The irony is that Carter said his words were directly speaking to then-rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who bears no resemblance to this stereotype beyond the color of his skin.
No, in this story, it is only Cris Carter that is the product of his environment, and that “environment” is the National Football League. Cris Carter will be 50 years old this November and has been continually a part of the world of the NFL as a player, broadcaster, or ambassador for 28 of those years. He is someone who went through the league’s substance-abuse program and came out the other side as someone held up as mentor, a veteran, and a role model. He also works with high-school football players and is a staunch defender of the idea that football has more than a redeeming social value: that it is a critical tool for helping “young men get on the right path”—and by doing so is a defender of the National Football League during a time when the league is being assailed by scientific research that portrays the sport as something more likely to hurt the cognitive capacity of teenage boys rather than set them on any kind of “right path.”
In other words, Cris Carter is a soldier for the National Football League and by advising players to get a “fall guy,” he was only regurgitating the messages of a league whose corporate slogan is “Protect the Shield,” which is really just a macho way to say “cover your ass.” The month before Cris Carter’s comments, the Baltimore Ravens put their “fall guy” in front of the cameras. It was Janay Rice, the wife of star running back Ray Rice. They had Janay look into the cameras and say “we both were at fault” for Ray removing Janay from consciousness. This was not a decision of the Rices, but a Ravens business decision. The Baltimore Ravens even made a point to live-tweet “Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role she played the night of the incident” and kept it up for months. Until video emerged, Janay Rice was being set up to be the fall guy.
In the months before Carter’s words became public, the New England Patriots were firing two equipment managers for deflating footballs in a men’s room to give their quarterback his desired grip on the pigskin. No matter what one thinks of this Deflategate case, the Patriots gut instinct was to immediately find a scapegoat.
In fact, the man who is the face of everything incompetent about the National Football League, Commissioner Roger Goodell, is in many ways the ultimate fall guy, part Lee Majors and part Lee Harvey Oswald. He’s the flak-catcher, the lightning rod, the punching bag. He stands before cameras, a near caricature of Caucasian rectitude, and takes every sling and arrow for the league’s horrific failings. He is paid millions to be the image of who we blame, instead of the 31 owners, network executives, and corporate sponsors pulling the strings. I am no fan, as I hope I have proven, of Roger Goodell, but blaming him for suppressing decades of research on head injuries or for the embedded culture of covering up instances of violence against women is perverse. Roger Goodell is hateable, and that, for NFL owners, makes him indispensable.
This latest Deflategate is another example of this. Owners have long been enraged at Bob Kraft and the Patriots for skirting the rules. They have also resented Goodell’s cozy relationship with Kraft. They then give him the mission of pushing the idiotic Wells Report past the NFL’s kangaroo courts and presenting it to an actual real-life judge. This effort will go down in embarrassing flames. The media will trash Goodell and he will again be the fall guy. But, hey, he looks great in a suit.
The grim, damn near humorous irony of this episode is that Cris Carter is now being forced to play the scapegoat, the patsy, and the prize sap for all of the NFL’s false rhetoric about “accountability” and being “model citizens.” It is hilarious that one of the anguished criticisms of Cris Carter was that “he was wearing his gold Hall of Fame jacket” when saying these damnable words. There is no mention that this is the same Hall of Fame that just tried to block Junior Seau’s daughter Sydney from speaking at his induction because they didn’t want his suicide, aggravated by head injuries sustained over a 20-year NFL career, mentioned in the speech. It’s a culture of cover-up, and Cris Carter was just giving these young men their introductory lesson.
But ever more instructively, look at what the NFL did next: When Cris Carter gave instructions to keep around a patsy, NFL officials apparently knew immediately that his comments were problematic, but left the speech on their website for a year. I have been to these rookie symposiums and cannot remember any session being recorded, because the whole point is for them to be a “safe space” for “real talk.” Either the NFL is staffed by a profoundly incompetent group of people (perhaps) or they knew it would come out someday and wanted a video record of Carter’s comments to immediately disseminate. Why? You really just never know when you’re going to need a fall guy.