NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
This past August, sports blogs were littered with articles drawing parallels between different aspects of the athletic world and the television program Breaking Bad. Most of this was inspired by columnists secretly bored silly with baseball trying to stay awake until the start of football season. Yet when your lens is a show as lustrous as Breaking Bad—in my opinion, the most searing triumph in US popular culture since The Godfather II—such comparisons supply more than mental masturbation but actual illumination.
I felt it myself following a weekend of decoding the NFL’s pitiless settlement of the class action concussion lawsuit of 4,500 former players and then, taking a break from the legalese, hearing a particularly poignant lament on Sunday’s episode from Breaking Bad’s star-crossed Jesse Pinkman. But before we go there, some background for the six non–Breaking Bad viewers who are still reading this column.
Breaking Bad is superficially about Walter White, cancer-stricken chemistry teacher, who becomes Heisenberg, crystal-meth kingpin. Show creator Vince Gilligan said famously that the concept of the show was “how Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.” But I always saw it as the story of a man—Walter White—coming to grips with the fact that being a good teacher and caring dad is something that while in theory we are supposed to respect, actually gets you nowhere in twenty-first-century America. (Like The Godfather, The Sopranos and the best organized crime fiction, Breaking Bad constantly acts as an allegory of life in the USA.)
Walt, liberated by cancer and prodded by both ego and financial stress creates a different life for himself where being feared and getting paid brings greater satisfaction than teaching ever could. This is an American arc so unique to television yet so familiar to the real world, it has the capacity to bring clarity to what we might otherwise not see.
I felt a new clarity about my recent coverage of the NFL during the show’s most recent episode, titled “Rabid Dog.” It was in a line uttered by the most tortured of Walter White’s many victims of emotional abuse, Jesse Pinkman. Despite Walt’s many missteps, comical tomfoolery and inability to get into a physical confrontation without looking like his face was tenderized, Jesse has imbued Walt, his abuser, with near-supernatural powers. He says to the DEA, “Mr. White? He’s the Devil. He is smarter than you. He is luckier than you. Whatever you think is supposed to happen, I’m telling you, the exact reverse opposite is going to happen.”
That rang a bell for me from a recent article by the always insightful, often profane, NFL humor writer Drew Magary of deadspin. Magary wrote in a recent column that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will some day “put a team in London and then demand the Brits stop paying national health care.” Yes, Magary is just joshing about Goodell and his abilities to crush all enemies, but you hear less satirical sentiments in many of the profiles of Goodell that, with rare exceptions, grant him a stunning array of powers. When written about by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, Goodell comes off as an amalgam of Machiavelli, Churchill and Nelson Mandela.
Under Roger Goodell’s leadership the NFL has become “The Shield” and woe to anyone who stands in between The Shield and its market share. Goodell’s latest act of ruthless utilitarian leadership: seeing the 4,500 player class action concussion lawsuit settled for a pittance with no admission of any wrongdoing and just in time for the start of the 2013 season. Does the NFL have two decades of hidden neurological research showing links between early-onset Alzheimer’s, dementia and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease)? Now, barring a shoulder-padded revolution, the vault is sealed and we’ll never know.
The 4,500 plaintiffs, some of whom due to their medical conditions would not have survived the trial, were under immense pressure to settle. Now the cloud has lifted, and for the cost of 40 percent of one year of ESPN broadcast rights alone, the biggest story in sports has been dumped in an oil drum and planted in the desert. When I interviewed several of the leading lights at ESPN last week about their disgust over the NFL’s influence at the network, the phrase used by most when discussing the dangers of crossing Goodell were “career suicide.”
Like Mr. White, it can seem like Roger Goodell always wins. And yet, while the ends can look impressive, the means toward triumph often resemble low farce*: the story of bumblers who couldn’t find their own house with a map. Roger Goodell during his seven-year tenure, has often had to, metaphorically, scurry around in his tighty whities, careening in embarrassing fashion from one crisis to the next. He was humiliated in front of Congress in 2009 for sounding like “a tobacco executive” on the question of head injuries, denying links between football related head trauma and neurological disorders. He was thumped by Reagan-appointed Judge David Doty in 2011, who found the NFL’s deal with NBC to get paid billions in a lockout slush-fund, even if no games were broadcast, to be contemptible. He was utterly embarrassed by his predecessor Paul Tagliabue, who cleared the New Orleans Saints players in the so-called Bountygate scandal. He surrounds himself with lawyers who have at times made Saul Goodman look like Clarence Darrow.
Like Walter White, Roger Goodell and his aura of invincibility owe a profound debt to living in a neoliberal era where we lionize people on the basis of their ability to generate wealth, and refuse to critically examine the means by which they achieve it. Despite all the missteps, Roger Goodell will earn at least $29.5 million this year and reporters dare not cross him on the record. Despite all the missteps, Walter White has a grave full of money and makes people gulp before even uttering his name. Like a nation of Jesse Pinkmans, we are in the thrall of the National Football League no matter how many players end up destitute or damaged. We celebrate the building of taxpayer funded billion-dollar stadiums, even though we know that every study shows that they are bleeding our cities dry. When Roger Goodell knocks, we answer, even though we know that the economic equivalent of a ricin cigarette awaits.
Of course the greatest difference between Roger Goodell and Walter White is that Mr. White, as Breaking Bad speeds toward its conclusion, is clearly headed toward a great fall. But that just demonstrates the frailty of fiction. In the real world, the one who makes the paper, the one who pulls the strings, the one who is the danger, the one who knocks, always lives to knock another day. Roger Goodell is “breaking bad,” and in the profit-driven logic of the NFL, that is all good.
Take a closer look at the NFL’s crime hysteria.