In a league built off human beings’ suffering permanent debilitating brain damage and whose participants are eight times as likely to develop ALS; one that takes public money from schools and infrastructure to build lavish stadiums that are inevitably abandoned; an organization that does its very best to sweep domestic violence and DUIs and criminal complaints under the rug until the problems become too big to ignore — in this madhouse, the main talking point leading up to Super Bowl XLIX is whether or not the Patriots’ balls were inflated properly.
Seriously. Grown men (presumably) are earnestly debating what punishments should be levied on a team that tried to eke out a minuscule advantage over an opponent they soundly thrashed, all the while ignoring the massive structural problems inherent in this system. It’s like ignoring Endor to focus on one tree.
And for what? To enforce some arbitrary rule in an already arbitrary game? News flash: Football is not the pure homage to sport you want it to be. Football is poor, nasty and brutish, filled with obsessive individuals willing to take any risk and game any system if it brings them an inch closer to victory. Football is filled with human beings injecting their bodies with chemical cocktails (some legal, some not) that turn internal organs into pink slurry, because to not be on the field means losing their job. And you’re worried about ball pressure?
Give me a break.
All the things that people watch football for — the gladiatorial spectacle of bodies pushed to and past their limits, the tense thrill of simulated combat, the raw emotion after a close fought game or an improbable comeback — all of those come with a price, whether you’re willing to admit it or not. It’s a price that frequently leaves its participants battered and broken, and the scandal here is a PSI?
Why does it matter if a quarterback likes his balls to be a bit underinflated or overinflated? It’s an arbitrary standard set by a rules committee decades ago. There aren’t any pregame shows dedicated to what the equipment guys have to do to get the balls ready for play. There’s no Sports Science on the difference between the tactile surface of a fresh-out-of-the-bag ball vs. one that’s been worn in. There’s no Behind the Lines on what it means to try and kick a QB ball or trying to throw a K ball. The football is a means to an end, and that end is entertainment.
Every player’s sole purpose out there is to entertain you, and the better we can do that, the more likely you are to keep watching. When I played, we did whatever we could to the footballs to try to make them easier to kick — pound them against a bench, press them down on the tee, anything to make our tools the slightest bit better. It was our job to be entertainment, and people are much more entertained by completed passes and booming punts and made field goals. No one cares about a game with crappy plays.
Know what else no one cares about? The other tools on the field — the players. You don’t care about the concussion a running back suffers when a defensive linemen jams a knee into the back of his head, or the slipped disc when a linebacker blindsides a receiver. You’re not thinking about a player’s health 20 years from now, when he has to walk with a cane — assuming he can still walk. When he’s gone, you’ll cheer for the next guy just as hard, because the uniform’s still the same. Do you even know what the protocol is for players to receive a payment under the NFL’s concussion “settlement”? No? Why do you suddenly care so much about a rubber bladder wrapped in leather?
I’ll tell you why you care about Deflategate/Ballghazi, why the sports media is furiously spitting out hot take after hot take in a splattering froth.
See, the NFL would rather you care about the minor thing it can pretend to fix, rather than the major thing it can’t — that its product is built on breaking people, some of whom never get put back together again. The NFL would much rather you invest your time and energy into calculating the atmospheric pressure as it relates to temperature differentials, and how many draft picks this could possibly cost, and what an appropriate fine would be, instead of thinking about retired players committing suicide due to brain damage, or medical scandals where physicians put a corporation’s interests before their patients’, or just how much money the owners make each year.
The NFL wants you to keep buying what it sells, and the easiest way to do that is to have a “controversy” that’s not really controversial at all. Instead of asking how many needles went into game balls, ask how many Toradol shots went into bodies before the game, and what price an extra two games a year would add. Instead of wondering what penalties the commissioner might impose, wonder why a man more concerned with PR than with actually doing the right thing has such broad and unchecked power. Instead of rehashing the talking points a “sports news” network incestuously intertwined with the sport it covers gives you, ask yourself why you care so much about something so incredibly minor.
The NFL has plenty of scandals. This is not one of them.
Kluwe is a retired NFL player who played for eight seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.
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