Watching the NFL Twisting in the Wind

The remarkably inept response of the NFL and three of its teams to players in trouble for various kinds of violent behavior has triggered an important but somewhat confused debate. Football is intrinsically a violent sport, where most of the action is big strong men trying to impose their will on other big strong men (fall down, drop the ball, etc.) not only by main strength as in judo but by ballistic collisions.  The game is already in some trouble from the brain damage caused by its repeated head impacts (helmets or not, concussions or not): it appears that about a third of players will develop Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, way more than the population base rate and occurring earlier in life.  At least as damaging has been the NFL’s shucking, jiving, and denial as the evidence of this risk came to light, and its tradition of treating players like used Kleenex after their playing value is exhausted  (they don’t treat their purely decorative labor all that well either, apparently).

As football players are celebrities, they make news when they misbehave off the field, and while their arrest rates are lower than the average for adult males , the proper comparison would seem to be ‘adult millionare males with at least some college’.  When the misbehavior is violent, all sorts of bells go off, as they have with the recent cases of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and Ray MacDonald.

The NFL is a cartel of entertainment companies, whose core business is to sell beer, cars, and other things young men like, along with seats in stadiums provided (if possible) at taxpayers expense.  Image is tricky for them, because fans like to identify with players and for a lot of them, the particular kind of toughness that defensive linemen act out is a precious fantasy. You can let out your inner tough guy watching a particularly savage hit, and then you even have  the occasional moment of awe and sympathy when a player is carted off with busted parts.

The league is tying itself in knots trying to figure out what to do in the  three current cases, of which two are at the arrest/indictment stage.  Should the league suspend players for off-field behavior like this when the facts are clear enough for a reasonable person to draw a conclusion, perhaps immediately upon an arrest? Well, the facts can be pretty clear in the period between arrest and final appeal, and sometimes people are found “not guilty” even when they unquestionably did it.  Furthermore, employers fire people all the time for things that are not criminal: I could lose my job for grading student papers by length or randomly, or telling students made-up nonsense in lectures, and if I beat my children or wife I hope my dean wouldn’t stand me up in front of a classroom.  “Innocent until proven guilty” is a rule of very specific, narrow application: it forbids government to punish people not convicted in court, period.  Football players are public figures and marketed as examples of upstanding character to emulate; courage, fair play, determination, team spirit, charity work, pink ribbons, and all that good stuff. If the league doesn’t want to present itself as a bunch of violent thugs, of course it should suspend or fire players who are arrested for beating women and children, and for driving drunk, too .

On the other hand, every game one of these guys  misses (especially a star like Peterson) leaves the team’s, and indirectly Roger Goodell’s, money on the table, and denies fans who just want to have a good time some number of those great hits.  Minnesota lost the game he didn’t play, and something like that can mean missing a playoff and a whole stadium of ticket sales plus a big bunch of TV revenues.  We’re talking serious money here.

Can’t this be managed with some framing? Well, whacking a couple of four-year-olds with a hand and a stick can be pretty well fuzzed up with sanctimonious cultural competence, Serious Reflection on black family tradition and history, and anyway, that bloody beating with a stick is easy to wrap into a big category of “corporal punishment” that includes a slap on a clothed behind. Even that expert in complex right/wrong discernment, the Viking’s GM, says “It’s a difficult path to navigate”.  Rice’s business partner/wife not only forgives him but accepts blame. MacDonald denies everything, and his fight with his lady friend in any case didn’t injure him; seems wasteful to idle talent, doesn’t it? After his trial and appeal, with luck after the season, there’s plenty of time to suspend him; he could miss a whole summer of practices. Anyway, hurting someone smaller and weaker than you isn’t all that different from what we pay defensive tackles to do to quarterbacks whenever possible, is it?

The video of Rice dragging his fiancee out of the elevator was upsetting, but it wasn’t really eyeball bait and certain to fade away.  The video inside the elevator added no facts to the story, but it has the gripping quality of a really good hit on the field, the kind of thing that gets replays and note from the announcers, as NFL execs know. Once it was out, the money calculation reversed and Rice was toast.

How will  all this come out? I don’t know, but Ambrose Bierce has a prediction:

A Moral Principle met a Material Interest on a bridge wide enough for but one.
“Down, you base thing!” thundered the Moral Principle, “and let me pass over you!”
The Material Interest merely looked in the other’s eyes without saying anything.
“Ah,” said the Moral Principle, hesitatingly, “let us draw lots to see which shall retire till the other has crossed.”
The Material Interest maintained an unbroken silence and an unwavering stare.
“In order to avoid a conflict,” the Moral Principle resumed, somewhat uneasily, “I shall myself lie down and let you walk over me.”
Then the Material Interest found a tongue, and by a strange coincidence it was its own tongue. “I don’t think you are very good walking,” it said. “I am a little particular about what I have underfoot. Suppose you get off into the water.”

It occurred that way.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.