Memo to NFL Fans and the League Office: Put Your Pitchforks Away
It’s true, the NFL has never been more popular. Or more utterly polarized.
Deflategate and its messy fallout have reminded us once again that there are two—and only two—sides to every story when it comes to the league’s ever-active crime and punishment front. There’s the perspective that says Team A or Player B (fill in the blanks based on the scandal du jour) is completely guilty and deserves the NFL’s version of the death penalty, and then there’s the contingent that’s completely convinced that Team A or Player B just suffered the biggest miscarriage of justice ever perpetrated against anyone, anywhere, with all that malice emanating from the hated league office.
In today’s voracious news cycle, the names, incidents and charges change with remarkable regularity. The scandals blow up, spark outrage, then fade away. But with each new saga that captivates 24/7 attention in the NFL, there are diametrically opposing viewpoints and interpretations of facts that seemingly keep moving further and further away from each other, with both sides well practiced in divorcing reality to cultivate their favored narrative.
By now, it’s a proven mathematical equation. Sports have become just like a political debate: You have to be 100 percent wrong in order for me to be 100 percent right. And I think it was Newton who first discovered that the world is divided equally among Patriots haters and Patriots zealots. At least when you round the percentages.
Why must every high-profile issue involving the NFL be a zero-sum game? All semblance of middle ground has been obliterated by scorched-earth debate. Just look at Deflategate and how the opposing camps are trying to sell versions of the truth that are as different as black and white. Either the Patriots are the biggest and most proven cheats the NFL has ever seen, and Tom Brady and his smug friends definitely had it coming in terms of the league’s sweeping penalties, or that All-American boy named Tom and his dynastic Pats are the most victimized and persecuted champions in the history of pro sports, drawing all this unfair scrutiny out of sheer jealousy and spite. Because the Patriots win too much, people naturally root against them the way people once hated the British Empire—and how’s that for an analogy rich with irony?
From the minute this saga began, it was clearly going to be a very tricky story featuring a boatload of gray. So many shades, in fact, that it took league-hired investigator Ted Wells more than 100 days to try to make some sense of it. Let’s face it, the facts in this drama are complicated. The science was more than a bit murky and completely foreign to most of us initially, Bill Belichick included. The chronology of when the Colts first complained and had issues with alleged ball deflation were confusing, and the competitive edge provided by having less air in a game ball still remains altogether difficult to quantify. No matter where your starting point of assumption was in reading the costly and long-anticipated Wells Report, the operative words were ultimately “circumstantial evidence.” Whether that was enough to prove your view of the case or not.
Who does nuance anymore? It’s much easier to boil complex issues down to a point-counterpoint cliché that goes something like this: The Patriots cheated, they always do. Case closed. Or New England and Brady were railroaded by a league office that didn’t have definitive proof, but decided strong suspicion was good enough to hand down some serious punishment, especially after so much time and effort had been spent on the investigation. Worse, the prism through which people saw this story barely budged over the past three-plus months. People knew what they knew, and it was either “in Tom We Trust,’’ or it was “about time they caught those frauds in Foxboro.” One side sees the Patriots as a team of pros, and the other as a team of cons.
But getting locked into those two divergent reactions—or roles, if you will—made a lot of people sound as if they had absolutely no room for reason in this debate. And this story is, in essence, the ultimate judgment call, requiring a little bit of trust being placed in somebody, or some body.
Patriots fans, it’s time to reel in your well developed paranoia complex and your heartfelt belief that Wells was merely doing the bidding of an NFL office looking to hammer your ultra-successful team, as well as one of the game’s greatest stars and ambassadors. Roger Goodell might well have eagerly taken the opportunity to show he doesn’t play favorites by doling out harsh penalties to Robert Kraft’s team, but he didn’t make up this entire tale out of whole cloth just to feel like he’s big and bad enough to be worth his eight-figure salary. So back off the sit-ins in the lobby of the league office, Patriots loyalists, and end that silly fund-raising drive to help Kraft scrape up enough for that $1 million fine. It makes you look like you’re due back on planet Earth anytime now.
As for Goodell and the NFL office, determined as they are to show resolve and toughness at every turn and fix every wrong with an iron fist, they would do well to seriously scale back on the God complex that has been crafted in recent years. What started out as Goodell wanting to restore some welcomed and needed attention to player conduct issues at the beginning of his tenure has morphed into a role in which he can’t possibly succeed. The principal’s office can’t be crowded all the time, and Goodell needs to find a way to turn in his badge (sorry, shield) and get out of the full-time policing business. If he keeps losing friends and allies at this rate, he’ll be down to a few extended family members who are non-football fans by 2016.
Deflategate isn’t over by a long shot, but the part of the story that featured only two firmly entrenched narratives should be. Neither side has ever owned a monopoly on the truth in this multilayered saga. And both would be smart to take a step back and recalibrate, realizing that a zero-sum game is usually a losing proposition.
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