The League That Never Sleeps

You probably know the 2014 NFL season kicks off in Seattle tonight, with Russell Wilson, Russell Wilson’s unairbrushable loins and the defending champs laying six points to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. I’m excited to have Brady, Gronk, Belichick and every other Patriot back in my life. I’m excited to see if I nailed this season’s sleeper (Tampa Bay!) and this season’s better-than-you-think contender (San Diego!). I’m excited for Monday B.S. Reports with Cousin Sal, and I’m excited to nearly quit fantasy football at least 200 times.

Getting Sundays back … that thrills me the most. I missed my wife glaring at me because it’s 6:30 p.m. and I haven’t showered yet. I missed yelling at my kids, “YOU HAVE TO LEAVE RIGHT NOW!” because they happened to stroll into the room right before a Stevan Ridley fumble. I missed keeping track of nine bets at the same time, I missed those moments when three killer games are wrapping simultaneously; and I missed hosting people for eight-hour, four-TV Sunday marathons highlighted by questions like, “Should I pull up DirecTV on my iPad to get a fifth game going?” “Would it be weird if I ordered Indian-food takeout at 10:30 a.m.?” and “Should we switch seats just so we can say later that we moved?”

I love football. I missed football.

Still, the coming season feels bittersweet because we’re saying farewell to the NFL’s new and improved offseason. Normally, only 30 pro football weeks matter: the regular season through Super Bowl week, the first two free-agency weeks, NFL draft week, Hall of Fame week and the four season-ticket extortion weeks (a.k.a. the preseason). That leaves 22 NFL weeks that shouldn’t matter at all, right?

Not on Roger Goodell’s watch! His league just made professional sports history by dominating headlines, day in and day out, for 52 straight weeks. Sure, most of those stories were unflattering, perplexing, embarrassing, inappropriate or downright disturbing. Did Goodell even care? The league treated 2014’s offseason the same way a celebrity might behave after his PR person tells him, “Just remember, any publicity is good publicity.” As weird as this sounds, it kinda sorta worked. We talked about the NFL the entire time.

And somehow, Goodell escaped the spring and summer relatively unscathed, save for anyone still seething about his Earnest Byner–level fumbling of Ray Rice’s situation. The commish needed five months to determine a verdict, then bungled that verdict so gravely that he (a) improbably offended every single type of football fan (especially female fans), (b) had to send team owners an after-the-verdict letter to apologize for screwing up the first verdict, and (c) speed-rushed a harsher domestic violence policy that’s loaded with easy-to-exploit loopholes.

When Keith Olbermann called for him to resign afterward, nobody even blinked. We’re just used to Goodell now. I wouldn’t call him a bad person, or a malicious one — just someone who seems overmatched AND stubborn. That’s a toxic combination. There have been moments when Goodell made Gary Bettman look like the next Steve Jobs. Think about THAT for a second. So was Goodell overpromoted by one level? Is this hopeless? Is there any chance he will improve? Is this like being at a restaurant when they’re one waiter short and one of the bus boys has to take orders, only in this case, Goodell is the bus boy and the entire NFL is the restaurant?

When you remember how terribly Goodell botched 2012’s referee strike or the Saints’ bounty scandal (remember, his old boss came back to clean it up!), it’s frightening to imagine how Goodell would have handled something infinitely more complicated like, say, the NBA’s recent Donald Sterling quagmire. Even when Goodell belatedly tries to do the “right” thing — abruptly changing the league’s on-field violence penalties in 2010 without giving the players enough time to adjust, sacrificing the 2012 Saints as his scapegoat in a misguided attempt to prove that the league was getting safer, blowing this summer’s aforementioned Ray Rice fiasco, or waiting nearly six months to announce this week’s inevitably controversial Jim Irsay suspension — Goodell always seems to be reacting instead of acting. Not the most flattering trait for the leader of America’s biggest sport.

But as long as he’s making money for the 32 NFL owners, they’re happy. And they’re all making money. Of course, if Goodell were a political incumbent running for reelection, the opposing candidate would be hammering him with attack ads like these.

“As the commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell taught us a lot of lessons over the years – you know, like that it’s eight and a half times worse to smoke pot three different times than it is to drag your just-knocked-her-unconscious fiancée out of an elevator like a prehistoric caveman. ROGER GOODELL — RUNNING THE NFL INTO THE GROUND.”

“Roger Goodell looks the other way when his players miraculously gain 30 pounds of muscle. Roger Goodell looks the other way when his players return from a nine-month injury in three months. Roger Goodell looks the other way when his players retire and immediately lose 50 pounds in eight weeks. Roger Goodell looks the other way as the controversy over the Redskins name becomes a national story. ROGER GOODELL — THE MAN WHO LOOKS THE OTHER WAY.”

“Roger Goodell and NFL owners claim they didn’t know concussions were serious health risks until 2009, and they didn’t do anything resembling a reasonable policy until a year later. In Varsity Blues, Billy Bob battles concussion issues so severe that he ends up crippling Lance Harbor. When was that movie made? 1999! ROGER GOODELL — THE GUY WHO PRETENDS THAT HE’S NEVER SEEN A SPORTS MOVIE.”

“Roger Goodell made $44 million last year. We can’t even come up with a good enough attack ad for this. We’re just gonna keep saying this over and over again. Roger Goodell made $44 million last year. Roger Goodell made $44 million last year. Roger Goodell made $44 million last year. ROGER GOODELL — HE MADE $44 MILLION LAST YEAR.”

Fortunately for Goodell, it’s nearly impossible for a sports commissioner to lose his job with a successful league. (Just look at Bud Selig — he’s hanging on to his gig through next January even though he’s nearly four times older than Mike Trout.) And to Goodell’s credit, he has four things going for him right now.

First, his multi-scene cameo in Draft Day was fantastic. I loved his chemistry with Frank Langella. What a masterful use of the commish’s time — to guarantee himself a four-month shelf life of cameos on airplane VOD screens as his league was crumbling morally around him. (Fine, I’m kidding about all of this — I just wanted to make fun of Draft Day. Although it’s probably not a coincidence that Goodell’s biggest Hollywood moment came in a frustrating football movie that yielded not one, not two, but THREE of the most indefensible logic mistakes in sports movie history.)

Second, Goodell’s NFL keeps thriving financially despite the steady stream of big-picture mistakes, general callousness, conflicting policies and head-scratching insensitivity. When you think about it, Jerry Jones is the quintessential NFL owner right now — he can’t stop making money despite himself. His Cowboys are worth a record $3.2 billion right now because of the brand, the stadium, the city and the uniforms. That’s it. The guy could tumble out of his luxury suite in a drunken stupor and miraculously have his fall broken by a bed of $100 bills. That’s the NFL in 2014 and it happened on Goodell’s watch. I think that’s a compliment.

Third, I can’t remember a bigger disparity between “how mainstream media members pretend the commissioner is doing” and “how a commissioner is actually doing.” Goodell spent the past eight years buttering these dudes and ladies up like three-pound lobsters; it’s probably his no. 1 accomplishment. And it keeps paying off. I can’t remember another commissioner manipulating the media better, actually. So … there’s that!

And fourth, as we mentioned earlier, Goodell achieved the impossible: He finally transformed the NFL into a 52-week sport. Fifty-two weeks of legitimate headlines! For the same sport!

Who knew a league could yield that much mileage out of PED suspensions, failed drug tests, domestic disputes, fights, arrests and other sordid fodder for the ESPN Ticker–TMZ–Sports Blog–Twitter Moral Majority era? Who knew we could drag five solid months of headlines out of a soundless 49-second TMZ video? Who knew the same league could juggle this many lawsuits? Who knew so many key players could be suspended for the same opening week? Who knew so many decisions could NOT make sense, and that we’d have so much fun complaining about how they didn’t make sense? Who knew we could love a league when the answer to the question, “Does the NFL truly and honestly care about its players and its former players?” seems to be so clearly, “Not really, no”?

You never stopped thinking about the NFL in 2014. The league was always kind of lingering. And sure, you could say the same thing about the stench of a corpse. But if Goodell’s goal was to keep growing the NFL at the expense of just about everything else, it worked. I don’t know a single football fan who quit the NFL this season, and neither do you. We care just as much as we always did. We look the other way as much as we always did.

It reminds me a little of Louis C.K.’s riff on the history of slavery from his 2013 HBO special.

Risky topic, right? He pulled it off in the setup by making sure that we KNOW slavery was the worst thing that humanity ever produced. He bangs that point home for 20 solid seconds, just so he doesn’t lose us with what’s coming next.

“Maybe every incredible human achievement in history was done with slaves,” C.K. says. “Every single thing where you go, ‘How did they build those pyramids?’ They just threw human death and suffering at them until they were finished. … There’s no end to what you can do when you don’t give a f— about particular people.”

That looks harsher in print than it does when a talented comedian is saying it. (That’s why I included the embedded video.) But C.K. finishes the riff (and the show itself) by holding up his iPhone and asking, “Even today, how do we have this amazing microtechnology? Because [in] the factory where they’re making these, THEY JUMP OFF THE F—ING ROOF because it’s a nightmare in there. You really have a choice — you can have candles and horses and be a little kinder to each other, or let someone suffer immeasurably [from] far away just so you can leave a mean comment on YouTube as you’re taking a shit.”

That’s just a great rant. And even if it’s not remotely as bad for NFL players (obviously), that same dissociative quality prevails for NFL fans. We just want to watch football. We put up with everything else. It’s just in the way.

We don’t care that Josh Gordon will probably lose a year of his professional career because he would have been better off popping 10 Toradols a day instead of puffing two different joints.

We don’t care that my generation grew up dreaming about playing in the NFL, only now, those same people are raising a new generation of kids that either (a) aren’t being allowed to play football for safety reasons, (b) are being allowed to play football, but only after lots of soul-searching and flip-flopping by the parents (an evolving process), (c) play football because it’s a potential escape from whatever place they’re trying to leave, or (d) play football in a town or city that lives and dies with football and wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s no right answer, but it’s infinitely more complicated than it used to be. Are these role models? Do we want our kids to grow up like them? When Sundays roll around, we don’t really care.

We don’t care that the league claims to care about player safety, but it’s still cranking out that debilitating Thursday-night schedule and forcing teams to grind out two games in five days.

We don’t care that the league doesn’t seem to realize that, if it made an HONEST effort to clean up football from a painkiller-PED-steroid standpoint, there’s a chance we wouldn’t have as many concussions (because the players wouldn’t be quite as fast and strong) or as many off-field incidents (because the players wouldn’t be hormone yo-yos).

We don’t care that Wes Welker should retire right now, that there’s absolutely no way he should play football again after his last concussion, that he’s a 2022 Real Sports segment waiting to happen … and yet you know he’ll be out there in Week 6.

We care about what happened with Ray Rice, and how it was handled … but not nearly enough to stop watching football, right?

And that’s why the National Football League remains America’s true pastime, a reality that reflects our own faults more than we want to admit. The league’s ongoing prosperity will be battling an accompanying (and undeniable) shelf life as science evolves and our society evolves. It’s an end game of sorts. We can see it now. It’s an invisible seesaw that will tip over the NFL, eventually, whether it’s 15 years from now, 30 years from now, or after I’m dead. But it’s coming. And we know it.

For now? The league is fine. Tonight’s must-see battle in Seattle will invariably fetch a bigger rating than last year’s opener. Get ready for a four-hour entertainment extravaganza. We’ll hear about the cat-and-mouse matchup between Seattle’s defense and Green Bay’s offense. We’ll hear about Eddie Lacy making The Leap. We’ll hear about Aaron Rodgers dating Olivia Munn. We’ll hear that Percy Harvin is Seattle’s X-factor. We’ll hear that there’s something just special about Russell Wilson, and that Richard Sherman is a better guy than we realize. We’ll hear about Seattle’s historically loud crowd, we’ll see some indecipherable decibel meter that won’t make sense because none of us understand the decibel scale, and we’ll definitely hear that Green Bay’s rookie center “could be in for a rough night.”

And at some point, it’s going to feel like real football again. I can’t wait. I’m picking the Seahawks minus-6 and adopting them for three hours. I’m starting Harvin, Stephen Hauschka and Seattle’s D on my West Coast fantasy team. I’m teasing the ‘Hawks with the Bears on Sunday. I’m even picking Seattle to become only the third back-to-back Super Bowl champ of the past 20 years. The NFL season officially starts tonight, but really, it never stops. Thanks to Roger Goodell, it runs for 365 days a year. Give that man another raise.

Filed Under: NFL, Roger Goodell, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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