Note: This piece originally appeared somewhere that is not here. It was taken down for a project. (DO NOT ASK WHAT THE PROJECT IS.)
Here's a horrifying game you can play during this Sunday's Super Bowl and the nearly 12 hours of pre- and postgame content: count the number of times you hear some variation of "deflated balls" and compare that to the number of times during Super Bowls XLV or XLVII you heard the phrases "two-time accused rapist" or "accused co-conspirator in a double murder." Or just compare "deflated balls" to "brain damage." Then see if the first number dwarfs a combination of the last three by an order of magnitude. It will.
Recognizing that, the league has sought to make the game only part of a broader monument to late-stage capitalism—the sort of tone-deaf, self-lampooning creation that follows a lot of battlefield metaphors and hammer-on-anvil-strike sound effects with the "AT&T/HR Block 'You Made The Right Call' Statistical Outlier Fan Vote: Text '1929' To Vote For Your Favorite 35-Yard Completion" dead-ball filler.
Compared to America's official secular holidays (the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving), honoring America's founding or the importance of family seems like work next to "Super Bowl Sunday," which goes to all the effort of honoring itself. After even a perfunctory amount of pregame feature pieces, anyone watching will know how much the average seat cost, in order to reinforce the specialness of attendance. Pregame and halftime performers are introduced with a citation of the number of records they have sold, in case you are unaware of the rare cost of the treat.
More specifically, one guest at every party will have memorized the statistic printed in that morning's paper and repeated on every pregame show indicating exactly how much 30 seconds of commercial airtime cost during the game. Despite the lack of creativity in the vast majority of commercials, many people watch the game solely to see how much money was spent selling them products, leading to the inevitable curse hurled at the screen, "Four-point-five million dollars for that?" This is serious business, and we are seriously invested, regardless of the fact that this is the act of insane people—like bitching not about the existence of Muzak, but because your favorite shoegaze band isn't being played when the local cable company customer-service flunky puts you on hold.
At every step of the way, someone should laugh at this, and at every step of the way, every person involved in serving you this spectacle will completely fail to accomplish this basic human function. The NFL is all business at every given moment, because of that very serious $7 billion annual cost to the networks that broadcast it and are the primary source of "adversarial" journalism about it. On a workaday basis, this elevates insignificant bullshit like coaching and "game plans" to geopolitical high art, like two kids playing Risk thinking they are Talleyrand and Metternich about to vanquish Napoleon and establish the Concert of Europe.
When actual news breaks, the integration of the NFL as entertainment with its own reporting wing becomes unmistakable. At this point, Sports Illustrated's Peter King can't speak when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is drinking a glass of water. ESPN's Adam Schefter initially responded to Goodell's preposterous two-game suspension of Ray Rice for knocking out his fiancée Janay by asking, "Was the Commissioner lenient enough?" There were, after all, the hundreds of thousands of people paying for fantasy leagues for whom Rice's existence manifested solely as someone Starting or Not Starting in the NFL.
Or consider NBC's broadcast of the divisional playoff game between the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots. On raw audio, you could hear play-by-play man Al Michaels going over prepared comments about Goodell and his handling of the Rice domestic violence issue and the fatuous report by Robert Mueller. Following Michaels, color commentator Cris Collinsworth stated, "The decision initially to suspend Ray Rice for two games was a mistake, and the commissioner admitted that. But I never once in all my dealings with the commissioner doubted his integrity." He sounded like he was staring at a picture of a hooded man holding up a copy of that day's newspaper and a revolver to his son's head.
Commissioner Goodell's response to his singular failure to address the Ray Rice domestic-violence arrest (or the dozens that have occurred virtually unnoticed during his tenure) was to arrogate to himself more authority to adjudicate them. If you've already integrated the competitive, broadcast and reporting parts of the game, you might as well include the justice system too. He has created a nearly self-contained reality because, all evidence of his massive idiocy aside, he's canny enough to recognize that the one thing most hostile to the NFL Shield is real life. And for the most part, it's worked. The Rice assault would probably have disappeared down the memory hole like its dozens of predecessors had it not been accompanied by the galvanic and undeniable reality of video.
Goodell knows that, on a very fundamental level, we watch football to be spared reality. There is no more automatic response to a sportswriter discussing politics or social issues than the cry, "Stick to sports." Fans have been his willing accomplices in denying the traumas and injustices underlying the games, because we embrace the game primarily for escapism and for the illusion that we can witness morality plays and talent competitions tested in a nowhere place of complete fairness and equilibrium.
He mostly would've gotten away with it, if it weren't for meddling facts generated not by social agitators and outside commentators, but by the normative functions of the NFL. Everything that so dearly threatens to crack the sealed environment of Goodell World is something created by Goodell World itself.
In a micro sense, you can point to the insane privilege of fame that likely spared Ben Roethlisberger from reckoning with the fact that he is human garbage – apart from a six-game suspension subsequently reduced to four. You can point to tolerated law enforcement partnerships with teams like the 49ers and Steelers, who have their own "fixers." You can point to the privilege that lets Colts owner Jim Irsay get pulled over drunk and on Vicodin and get ordered to stay off Twitter while Marshawn Lynch gets fined for not talking pretty to the NFL promotional wing. Or Jimmy Haslam keeping his team despite being a massive fraudster, while one of his wide receivers gets suspended again and again for smoking weed. Or Dan Snyder trivializing a genocide. Or Jerry Richardson extorting his city at great profit. But all that's predictable. Protecting franchise-defining players and keeping the grunts in line while keeping labor costs low and owner revenue high is just good business in a league that unironically and ubiquitously refers to its competition as the on-field product.
In the macro sense, though, the air-sucking sound escaping from Goodell World started with the revelation that, on every down, every player on the line is pulverizing another bit of his brain and that, not only did the NFL deny knowledge of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, they actively sought to undermine it. The fundamental tragedy of the NFL—the fact that by merely working properly on every play, it risks destroying people—is one cast down from the game itself to send the real world shuddering. That the NFL's hermetic environment could only think to suppress the story while attempt to divert attention with "safe tackling" protocols and big fines for telegenic tackles only reified the severity of the problem and the psychotic clown show overseeing it.
"Stick to sports" only goes so far. Ray Lewis' involvement in a double murder can be written off as an aberration and ignored as so much old news. Roethlisberger's double rape allegations are now old news, but back then, they were distorted by the funhouse mirror of Goodell World until dismissing them seemed almost less than outrageous. By the time the soft-focus pregame features of Super Bowl XLV came along, you had people like Fox's Curt Menefee actually suggesting that winning the game would complete Roethlisberger's "redemption season," while everyone else portrayed being accused of violating another woman as more or less "adversity."
This alone explains why you will hear no end of invocations of "deflated balls" this Sunday. Deflating a ball is a crime only in Goodell World, where the fraction of people who give a shit about it is only slightly greater than the people who care about it in real life—which is zero. It's a crime about the integrity of the game, one that only exists within the game and can only be prosecuted and disciplined within the game. It is the sweetest outrage because it is 100 percent recreational. Most importantly, it's not a crime, or at least a horror, created by the normative function of the game.
Goodell World started to collapse before the season began, when the hard corporeal truths of the NFL dropped a passel of bodies through the bubble and when Ray Rice drove a fist through it, forcing Goodell to attempt a patch job on something irreparably broken, revealing a system more devoted to its preservation than justice. Football completed the first stage of a terminal assault on itself this year, and it will do anything to convince you that the organism has never been healthier.
So, on Sunday, you will learn how much every second of it cost to broadcast, because expensive things are always beautiful things. You will hear how lucky everyone is to be there, and how much famous people feel privileged to both perform and attend. You will be told that it is a showcase of spiritual struggle that transcends mere human meat because it has to be more important than that. And you will hear how the sharpest knife held to the heart—the integral working—of that spectacle is two dudes poking a pin in a pigskin bladder.
You will hear that incanted without irony from the people whose duty it is to view football with a skeptical eye, because most of them work for the same organs that largely furnish Goodell World's $7 billion operating budget. You will hear it not because Goodell asked—at that price, no one needs to ask—but because no one builds a subdivision and then tells buyers that the groundwater gives people fever. You will hear that, because only if that is the gravest threat to the NFL can Roger Goodell possibly have all the solutions. In a game whose biological realities stubbornly refuse to assent to PR diktat, the only reason to pursue this much comprehensive control is to perpetuate the illusion that everything is under it.
Shout out to Deadspin, from which I stole the Goodell image, and to my buddy Tim Burke, who is probably the poor bastard who had to screencap that.