The seeming utter inanity of our national obsession over whether the New England Patriots were deflating their footballs and if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would do something about it, reached a fever pitch this week. While wondering whether this was just a “weapon of mass distraction” or actually worth giving a damn about, Christopher Hitchens came to mind. This is not usually a pleasurable experience.
The last time I agreed with Mr. Hitchens, who passed away four years ago, was in 1998. Before Hitchens “found his purpose” verbosely lusting for war with the Islamic world—think Bill Maher with a thesaurus—he was a merciless critic of those in power, regardless of political party. This included President Bill Clinton. When the Monica Lewinsky affair was revealed in 1998, Hitchens was deeply frustrated with others on the Democratic party left who defended Clinton on the basis of standing up to what Alan Dershowitz has recently deemed “Sexual McCarthyism.” He was also angered by those on the radical left who said that Clinton’s lying about an affair was meaningless and that if the president were going to be impeached, it should be for “his real crimes.” In other words, impeach Clinton for the deadly sanctions leveled against the Iraqi people, or for his cold-hearted welfare policies, or for the unprecedented build-up of the prison-industrial complex under his watch.
Hitchens’s response to this was to say that Clinton’s perjury and these profoundly more serious issues were intertwined. Both spoke to how he believed that rules simply didn’t apply to him. Clinton’s libertine sex ilfe was also monstrously hypocritical, given how his welfare reform policies policed the sexual lives of poor women.
As the months wore on, Hitchens took his argument—in my view—to an indefensible place, a place that presaged his political future as someone who tied his skill with the written word to the needs of the American state. Hitchens voluntarily swore out an affidavit to inform on his friend and Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal for alleged plots to discredit Ms. Lewinsky. This earned Hitchens the nickname he carried in many circles until his death, ““Hitch the Snitch.”
This entire scenario echoes in the drama that surrounds the New England Patriots, Roger Goodell and their deflated balls. I am hearing many people I respect say that if we are going to roast Goodell and the National Football League, please have it be for his “real crimes” as opposed to this sideshow. In other words, the serial covering up of violence against women, the lack of regard for player safety, and his hostility towards the NFL Players Association should be what brings him down. Yes, it is difficult, if not absurd, to discuss “cheating” in a sport where every team is looking for an edge, many players take whatever pills will keep them either bulked up or upright for the opening kickoff, and the purpose of play is to mash the frontal lobe of your opponent into a fine paste. But among the Saturday Night Live sketches and snarky columns, there lurks something important about the culture of corruption and cronyism in this commissioner’s office, particularly in Goodell’s relationship with Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Seattle Seahawk Richard Sherman was absolutely correct when he was asked earlier this week about whether the Patriots would be punished and he said, “Probably not. Not as long Robert Kraft and Roger Goodell are still taking pictures at their respective homes. He [Goodell] was just at Kraft’s house last week before the AFC Championship. Talk about conflict of interest. As long as that happens, it won’t affect them at all.”
This conflict of interest is very real. As GQ’s Gabriel Sherman wrote in a damning long read that dropped this week about Goodell, Kraft is apparently known among NFL execs as “the assistant commissioner.” Even this description is charitable. It’s less the relationship between an assistant and a commissioner as much as it is one between a hand and the bottom aperture of a puppet. Bob Kraft, in addition to being just a “friend of Goodell,” has been the great defender of nGoodell’s stunning $44 million salary. He was Goodell’s first defender during the release of information that showed that the NFL cared very little about domestic violence until tape went public of Ray Rice striking his wife Janay. He also, according to GQ, orchestrated Goodell’s disastrous defense of the NFL’s domestic violence policies, in conjunction with CBS network who was about to start airing its lucrative Thursday night NFL telecasts. Kraft ordered Goodell to speak to CBS and grant an interview to, in Kraft’s insistence “a woman,” who ended up being Norah O’Donnell. Goodell complied.
Drew Magary wrote, in analyzing the league’s deep concern with the optics of this, “[Y]ou can see that NFL higher-ups were far more concerned with LOOKING like they were handling domestic violence appropriately than actually doing so (cut to Eli Manning in a No More ad looking like you just told him that we’ve run out of cupcakes).
This relationship with Bob Kraft and the mere appearance of impropriety that marks how Goodell handles every issue that crosses his desk, tells its own story about why he must go. A reckless incompetence now defines everything he touches, whether it is his enforcing of the rules, the health and safety of players, or his dealings with the union. Instead of acting—like his predecessor Paul Tagliabue—as even the mildest of checks on the grasping of the bosses, he is their id unleashed. Instead of listening to players, Goodell is so comically distanced from the reality of his own ineptitude that he has become the sports version of Yertle the Turtle.
It is understandable why people do not care about the Patriots ball-maintenance or whether public officials lie about their sex lives. But we should care about people in power who hector us about our own morality as an exercise in spin. We should care about executives who punish workers by saying “ignorance is no excuse” while proudly being an ignoramus. If deflated balls are the small string that rips the sweater off of Roger Goodell, then we should grab it like we’re trying to tackle Marshawn Lynch, and hold on for dear life.