One flicker of hope in the aftermath of the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre has been the mainstream media’s willingness to speak a self-evident truth: Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association is not only out of touch. He’s part of the problem. From the New York Post to the Huffington Post, the verdict has been near-unanimous on LaPierre’s reaction to the tragedy. Calling for a national mental health registry, the turning of every school into a federal security zone and the arming school administrators is not only tin-eared. It’s simply disturbed. Yes, as many have pointed out, he may just be crazy as a fox, ramping up the fear factor, helping spur new gun sales and doing his true number one job: catching flack for the CEOs of “big ammo.” If everyone in the media is busy calling out LaPierre, they’re unintentionally covering for the executives exploiting the jagged fears of a rattled populace. But it still has been refreshing to see much of the press abandon the pretense of false equivalence and call the LaPierre/NRA agenda out as the profit-driven, despotic dystopia that it is.
I do wish, however, this spasm of honesty would infect every working reporter—especially my brethren who toil in the world of sports. Sportswriters have become so conditioned to swallow whatever craven, logic-defying line oozes from the league offices, it is rare to hear a writer point out that our sports commissioners have no clothes. This ethical nudity applies to Major League Baseball’s feckless Bud Selig, NBA czar David Stern, and the man seemingly driven to destroy the NHL, Gary Bettman.
But it’s NFL chief Roger Goodell who has spent the last year doing his best impression of Wayne LaPierre. A recent cover story for Time magazine, titled “The Enforcer: How Far Will Roger Goodell Go to Protect the Game He Loves?” is a case in point more of how far the media will go to tell us that “up” is in fact “down” if it’s in the interest of institutional power. The article is a Bizarro-world profile that paints Goodell as someone working overtime to make the game as safe as possible. It quotes Goodell stating that his altogether violent sport can be made far safer if only certain reforms were implemented like the elimination of kickoffs. This is akin to saying that falling out of an airplane could be without risk if planes never traveled higher than 1,000 feet. Forget the article. We know “how far Roger Goodell will go” to protect the interests of football just by surveying the events of the past year:
• The NFL saw the number of former players suing the league swell to more than 4,000 in 2012, in what has become the largest class-action lawsuit in sports history. The players/plaintiffs claim that the NFL hid research that demonstrated a connection between football and the post-concussive syndromes connected to head injuries. The NFL continues to deny this, saying they have only been aware of the science since 2009, despite the fact we now know that the NFL retirement board, which has one member of the commissioner’s office in its ranks, has over the last fourteen years been secretly paying players believed to have been suffering from such injuries.
• Goodell made headlines over the league’s crackdown on financial “bounties” aimed at inspiring the New Orleans Saints defense to “take out” opposing players. Now a humiliating subsequent investigation led by Goodell’s predecessor Paul Tagliabue found little to no basis for the commissioner’s McCarthyesque accusations, which cost the Saints their season and did irreparable harm to the reputations of several players, including outspoken union leader Scott Fujita. In an echo of McCarthy, Goodell even launched his public condemnation of the Saints by saying he had a list of “twenty-two to twenty-seven players” who took part in the bounty program before suspending a grand total of four. As Saints quarterback Drew Brees said to Time, “I feel like, in large part, this bounty scandal, so to speak, is a big facade and a way to cover up the shortcomings of the league with regard to player health and safety over the last three years.”
• These shortcomings are legion. They include the use of dangerously incompetent replacement, scab officials for ¼ of the current season, the institutionalizing of Thursday Night Football, which gives players less time to heal, and the continual push for an eighteen-game season. It has also included a continual effort by the NFL to promote youth football as a safe, wholesome activity for children as young as 7. The league has done this despite a study released in February “showing that head impacts among second grade football players are sometimes as severe as those seen at the college level.” Renowned concussion expert Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of the Sports Legacy Institute has stated that the sport should be banned for children younger than 14. The NFL has not embraced Dr. Cantu’s suggestion.
Time is correct that Goodell is an enforcer, but not for the greater good. Like LaPierre, Goodell enforces a disciplined message that presents his harmful industry as American as apple pie in the name of profit. Unlike LaPierre, he gets a benefit of the doubt a mile wide. As Time quoted him saying, “I don’t do things for public relations. I do things because they’re the right thing to do, because I love the game.… If you want to do the popular thing, be a cheerleader.” It is fitting that our chief enforcer of the redeeming values inherent in toxic masculinity would take pains to make clear that he is a manly man and nobody’s “cheerleader.” It’s even more fitting that Time would paint the criticism he’s provoked among players and their union as a Trumanesque virtue.
It’s a step in the right direction that the press is finally calling out the willing ignorance of Wayne LaPierre as the dangerous spectacle that it is. Let’s turn that critical eye toward Goodell and his commissioner brethren. They are running sports into the ground and—after four league lockouts in the last year—it’s high time writers, fans and players stop genuflecting and start speaking truth. Maybe they should remember Goodell’s own advice. He said to Time, “A lot of times, you know the right thing to do. But you have to have the courage to do it. And I think that’s harder than it seems.” Courage isn’t easy. But the courage to call out Roger Goodell should be the litmus test to know the difference between an honest journalist and a stenographer for power acting against the greater good.
Read George Zornick's take on Wayne LaPierre's post-Newtown "press conference".