Breaking Bad: Football’s Power Overdose

Roger Goodell
Roger Goodell
East Rutherford NJ USA NFL commissioner Roger Goodell stands on the field prior to the game between the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos at MetLife Stadium Brad Penner USA TODAY Sports

(Warning: contains Breaking Bad spoilers)

When I was in the sixth grade, I attempted to sign up for football and started crying instead. One of the coaches saw me and told me football wasn’t about judgement or being strong. It was about “heart” and “believing in yourself.” He was a liar, but I’m glad I listened. I signed up, played defensive end and wide receiver, recovered a fumble, broke a bone, and was nicknamed “Legend.”

I quit two years later, mostly because I discovered running. I have really long legs and it’s just easier in life to run away from things. I was joking about Legend. He existed, somewhere — most likely in Santa Barbara for his sexual hot-tub prowess — but not me, not then, not football. But I’ll always be grateful for that coach who helped out a crying kid and didn’t tab him $15,000 for the Vegas bro-trip.

It’s a pretty powerful thing, football. Check out a map of the United States according to the highest paid public employees. Forty-one states claim a sports coach — a whopping 30 of those are football coaches. We care a lot about it. More than libraries, obviously.

There is that other thing, though, that comes with great power — the thing football doesn’t seem to know much about.  Instead of embracing its great responsibility, football has collapsed inward and upon itself. The result is an overwhelmingly powerful black hole.

By now, we’re sick of hearing about Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito, anything to do with CTE and concussions, sexual assault and Jameis Winston, or homophobia and ex-Viking punters. We’ve been exposed to every reaction possible, from stubborn denial and anger to hopeless pleas for institutional change.

Last fall, when the Martin/Incognito Bullygate went down, someone went all Nostradamus on us and said, “all hell is going to break loose.” Smart guy. Here’s the thing — hadn’t hell already broken loose?

There’s that book, League of Denial, after all, which is about football-related brain injuries and the NFL discrediting scientists and claiming the concussion issue in football, “was one of those pack journalism issues, frankly.”

Here’s the truth: Football broke bad a long time ago.

This isn’t Walter White deciding to cook meth. It’s him killing Mike. Picture Adrian Peterson dying beside a river with Roger Goodell mumbling about how all those hits just didn’t seem so bad at the time. “Shut up Roger,” says Adrian. “Let me die in peace.”

Chris Kluwe is football’s latest sacrificial lamb, a punter who was allegedly booted off the Vikings squad for being opinionated about human beings deserving basic civil liberties. He even aligned his situation with poor Tim Tebow’s, saying “Because he (Tebow) brings this other stuff with him, just like I bring my other stuff with me, teams look at it like, ‘We don’t want it. We don’t want players speaking out. We don’t want players doing anything other than football.’

It’s a good point. After the obligatory, “we don’t condone discrimination in any way and will investigate this immediately” statement by the Vikings, speaking out truthfully seems more relevant than ever. The obligatory “we had no idea this was going on” quote has become the de facto “we clearly knew about this and we know you probably know this, so whatever, here’s a lame statement about how we didn’t know about this” NFL guilty plea.

What will most likely follow is the firing of someone, perhaps the glorification of Kluwe, the denunciation of the Vikings, or the fourth coming of Richard Timothy Tebow. The thing is, none of that really matters. Not in the grand scheme of things. This is – and always has been – about the establishment.

Who do you think the Vikings answer to? The Catholic Church? Football is an incredibly profitable machine that has a whole bunch of cogs. It’s not rocket science. Kluwe < Vikings < NFL. The thing is, why are we punishing the low men on the totem pole? Go after the coaches and the organizations all you want, but if a kid goes into his first day of organized school and punches every other kid in the face, is it right to hold the parents completely unaccountable?

All these “transgressions” amount to is football never having to answer for anything. Football – as a whole – gets off scot-free every time. Yet somehow, that’s always overlooked in our (and the media’s) rush to get on the proverbial moral high horse.

Sadly, this isn’t just a professional issue either, as the lack of responsibility can get downright educational. I’m no law expert, but it seems very obvious (and experts agree) that Florida law enforcement completely bungled what should have been an incredibly serious investigation that involved Jameis Winston and the alleged sexual assault of a young female.

Look, there was something sad about watching that National Championship game. Especially the way it ended. It’s sad because there is no such thing as black and white and it’s not like handling sexual assault cases atrociously and ignoring victims is an isolated incident in college football.

I don’t know what happened with Jameis Winston and that girl. Everyone deserves to be treated as innocent until proven otherwise, but the thing is, football – professional and collegiate – really is a black hole when it comes to the evaluation of truth. You can speculate all you want about what happened, but you’d never know the truth until you became a part of the system. Once you’re in, however, there would be no way for you to report back on anything. Nothing escapes football. Not light, not gravity. Certainly not truth.

That’s what is so disappointing — that truth and justice in football will always be warped and clouded by the powers that be.

Some of this is on us, of course. Football is very dear to us and we turn blind eyes when things get ugly. But we have to take some responsibility. We have to stop dragging the red herrings  — Richie Incognito, the Kluwe-haters, the Minnesota Vikings, even Jameis Winston — to the gallows. Because as long as we punish the cogs and not the machine, football will never be threatened because we will have failed to shine our moral flashlights on its rotten core.

Everything is always a product of a bigger environment. There is always a higher power. It needs to answer for something too. Ironically, for all the fuss about the Redskins, there’s something else football stole from Native Americans — tribal sovereignty.

Football is a sport, not a sovereign nation. A judge recently rejected the NFL’s $765 million settlement of concussion claims. It’s a small step in the right direction, sure, but still — is it any wonder $765 million wasn’t enough?

Football needs to be held held accountable, but more importantly, it needs to take some responsibility. And not just financially. The sport I played in sixth grade seemed to be about knocking people down and helping them back up. Not kicking their skull in.

So it’s up to you, football. Your move.

author avatar
Horace Smith
Horace Smith writes about sports and the universe with a healthy dose of cynicism. He's based in Portland. !function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?'http':'https';if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);;js.src=p+'://';fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, 'script', 'twitter-wjs');