Let’s start with a full disclaimer so we’re all on the same page and nothing gets misconstrued: I don’t believe in government action as a solution to any of the problems I raise. As an employer, I believe the National Football League should be able to pay or not pay its employees as much as it wants for whatever reason it wants. Nobody has a right to an NFL salary or job.
That being said, the NFL is draconian and Roger Goodell is a tyrant.
Every time you look up, the NFL is harassing one of its players over its arbitrary, busy-body rules and wielding inconsistently strict punishments that do a tremendous job at never seeming to fit the crime. Roger Goodell ushered in a new, creepily invasive era when he galloped into the commissioner’s chair in 2006 and brought with him a profoundly strict, zero-tolerance Personal Conduct Policy that essentially gave him the ability to punish players for any single off the field action that Goodell himself didn’t explicitly sign off on. In subsequent years, his propensity to hand out massive fines on a whim have become meme-worthy, as has his desire to stamp out absolutely any freedom of expression from the players both on and off the field.
Take Mr. Beast Mode, Marshawn Lynch, a once-in-a-generation wrecking ball of a running back who has provided viewers with some of the most jaw-dropping running plays in NFL history over the past few years. And not once has a fan ever uttered the phrase: “Man, Lynch was awesome today, totally put the team on his back. If only he made himself available to the media more often…”
In 2013, the NFL fined Lynch $50,000 for refusing to make himself available to the media. And in a defiant demonstration of how little his fans care about his silence, and how much they simply appreciate watching him perform as an athlete, the Seattle Seahawks fans collectively raised the $50,000 to pay off his fine. If this was all about the fans, the NFL would have stopped forcing Lynch to the podium and fining him when he refused. The fans clearly demonstrated an indifference to Lynch’s media presence, rivaled only by the indifference expressed by Lynch himself.
In 2014, the NFL fined Lynch $100,000 for again refusing to speak to the media.
Nobody cares to hear whether or not Marshawn Lynch steps up to the podium and drops cliches for the media one after another after the game ends, because all viewers care about is Marshawn Lynch stepping on the field and dropping would-be tacklers one after another while the game’s being played. In a tremendously misguided attempt to market its brand, the NFL has decided that it is imperative for Mr. Lynch to field aimless, generic questions after games no matter how disinterested and uncomfortable he feels doing so.
The result? His instantly viral string of late-season interviews that feature him responding to any and all questions with a single, repetitive phrase. First it was “Yeah,” then he tried out “I’m thankful,” and “Thanks for asking,” before striking gold in his pre-Super Bowl interview with “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.”
It’s a hilarious and entertaining trend right now, but it will get old quickly. And when that time comes, what will the NFL’s move be? Fine him for not giving varied enough answers?
There is a solution to all this, of course. The NFL wants to advertise its players; that’s why they require them to be made available to the media after games. So why not leave it up to the teams to designate a certain number of players to be made available to the media after games? Teams want to market their players and their brand as well, and they care deeply about serving their fans, but they also have a vested interest in not forcing their players to be unnecessarily uncomfortable. Teams will still want to showcase their most visible and polished players, and those media-darling-types (Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning), will have little trouble continuing to drop heavy servings of sound-bite platitudes with a side of charming smiles before and after games every week. It seems like a fair enough policy, certainly one worth exploring. But instead, the NFL seems content bullying and harassing the hell out of Marshawn until he becomes a “We fought hard, took it one play at a time” robot. Which won’t happen.
Speaking of harassment, the NFL has taken on the role of full-time tormentor of Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon even before he ever set foot on an NFL training ground. Citing his offense as having smoked pot in college, the NFL placed Gordon in an advanced drug testing program, subjecting him to far more rigorous and frequent testing than other players. Then, after he failed to file the proper paperwork for a doctor-prescribed cough medicine he was taking during the preseason of his rookie year, the NFL suspended him two games and further increased his testing to upwards of 100 “random” tests a year. In each of these he had to demonstrate less than 15 nanograms of THC per milliliter in his urine, a level so comically low and unreliable that the NFL had to more than double it to 35 nanograms in the latest edition of the drug policy.
Unfortunately for Gordon, a man for whom fortune has been anything but kind, these common sense reforms occurred after he submitted a urine test that found 16 nanograms of THC in one sample and 13.6 nanograms in another. Uncertainty be damned, Gordon was suspended for a full year (later reduced to a half-year).
It goes on. After being pulled over this past July with a BAC of 0.09, the NFL decided to ban Gordon from drinking alcohol as well. “Did I think that was excessive given I had never had any issue whatsoever with alcohol? Yes,” Gordon admitted in his open letter published just last week. “Did I think it was hypocritical that a professional league making hundreds of millions of dollars off beer sponsorships was telling me not to drink? Yes. Did I so much as blink at the condition? No.”
Fast forward a full seven months later. Josh Gordon had a beer on an airplane and is now suspended for all of next year, without pay, no questions asked.
In review, he has been forced to take approximately 180 drug tests in his two years as a professional athlete. His THC levels have never even reached half of the current threshold for punishment. The 23-year-old man also drank a beer. And because of this, the NFL has ruined his career.
In the end, Josh Gordon is responsible for every choice he has made, and actions have consequences. But this does not change the fact that if the NFL had not been operating under an unreasonable and archaic drug policy, Josh Gordon wouldn’t be in this situation to begin with.
And when rules become unreasonably unjust, whether or not they are followed becomes no longer a reflection on the perpetrator. You can almost hear Thomas Jefferson bellow from his grave: “If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.”
Then again, the NFL has never really followed Jeffersonian ideals, especially when it comes to perhaps his most treasured political value: expression. When Kansas City Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah, a devout Muslim, was hit with a 15-yard penalty for bowing in prayer after a touchdown in a nationally televised game in late September, viewers were understandably outraged. Social media and outlets abroad were quick to accuse the referees of “Islamophobia,” but in reality, this was just a by-product of an overbearing set of rules aimed at suppressing expression of all kinds.
The No Fun League has only gotten less fun since Goodell came to town and began attempting to siphon away every last drop of free expression from players. In recent years, being able to express joy after a touchdown without earning yourself an “unsportsmanlike conduct” penalty has become an even more difficult and impressive task than scoring a touchdown in the first place. The referees flagged Abdullah for violating Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1 (d), which states that “players are prohibited from engaging in any celebrations or demonstrations while on the ground.” Intolerance towards a specific religion wasn’t the cause of this absurd ruling; intolerance toward expression in general was.
All these examples of authoritarian nonsense from the NFL and its dear leader have a common thread: none of them had anything to do with actually playing the sport of football. Find me a single NFL fan who is dying to hear more post-game commentary from Marshawn Lynch. Find me a single NFL fan who cares more about a player’s urine tests than his athletic feats on Sunday. Find me a single NFL fan who is just thrilled that the players can’t celebrate anymore. But more importantly, find me an NFL executive who gives a damn. The actions taken by the NFL recently seem to do no more than satisfy the appetite of the power hungry individuals in the league office. When the NFL unnecessarily cracks down on its players, nobody wins; not the players, teams, or fans.
Nothing is gained, save for another inch of height on the phony moral high horse ridden by Goodell and his cronies.
Hunter Swogger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org