Roger Goodell’s Perfect Little NFL Panopticon

The NFL commissioner has managed to keep political chatter officially out of the Super Bowl, but his strongman tactics may backfire.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Roger Goodell has done it! He has invented a national sensory deprivation tank that walls off man from politics! Just listen.

“As commissioner of the NFL, I’m singularly focused on the Super Bowl right now,” he told a reporter when asked about Donald Trump’s new ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, since overturned by a federal judge.

And now we have stopped talking about it entirely. It has worked. There were no further questions about Trump’s policies, specifically the impossible, theatrical wall with Mexico that has already strained the relationship with a country into which Goodell wants to expand his league.

At least there were no further questions in the transcripts of interviews with players in the NFL this week, because all political questions were scrubbed at the league’s request. Nothing to see there.

Even the questions posed about Trump to his two most famous celebrity supporters on this for-now green Earth, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, were wiped away from the records of Roger Goodell’s perfect football panopticon.

He’s singularly focused on the Super Bowl right now. Everyone in the country is. No problems here. No further questions.

Until, of course, someone goes rogue, and someone almost assuredly will at Sunday’s Super Bowl. Lady Gaga will perch herself atop NRG Stadium on Sunday and strip to reveal she is secretly covered head-to-toe in H1B visas, or she’ll replace all the words to “Born This Way” with the URL of an ACLU donation page. It will happen, just as it happened with Beyonce’s halftime Formation performance before her, and Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest after her. If it’s not her, it’ll be a player or a beer commercial at halftime.

It will happen because politics are inescapable now that the most powerful person in the United States is picking a new kind of person to quasilegally discriminate against on an almost daily basis. The only way for a league to thrive in this environment is to embrace the inescapability.

“The difference between the NBA and NFL this week, it couldn’t be more stark,” said Dave Zirin, the sports editor at The Nation and the author of a few books about race and sports.

In the two weeks the NFL has been without a game (the Pro Bowl does not count as a football game), the NBA has positioned itself as a defiant inversion.

NBA coaches encouraged their players to speak out about the Muslim ban and its effect on players, and they did so forcefully. The league’s commissioner warned against the ban's implications. The best point guard in the East, Kyle Lowry, called the ban "bullshit.” When asked to rephrase it for the papers, he did it like so: “It’s bullshit. You have to bleep that out. That’s how I feel about it.”

In the wake of “alternative facts,” the NBA's winningest coach, Steve Kerr, led a charge for people to subscribe to newspapers with a hashtag, #presson. The league’s best coach, Gregg Popovich, has jumped out of the sports pages at the bottom of Texas and into the national dialogue about the normalization of racism and lies spread by the new administration. The NBA’s website ran his words verbatim.

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In the face of cruelty, the NBA didn't point to a stack of money. The NBA exhibited a soul.

“What’s so pathetic about Goodell is that, in an effort not to talk about politics to appease the Trump-(Patriots owner) Bob Kraft-Belichick nexus, he’s shooting himself in foot. He desperately wants to expand to Mexico City, and it’s much harder to do that when Trump is talking about building a wall,” said Zirin.

So make that guts, too. The NBA also exhibited guts.

And, with all of this political talk coming out of NBA locker rooms, you know what NBA fans were talking about all week? The MVP race, and if Isaiah Thomas should be in it. Or LeBron James talking smack to Charles Barkley about his legacy. Or on-court infighting with the Bulls seeping onto Instagram.

The league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, let players say their piece. And they did. They called bullshit as they saw it, literally, and refused to obfuscate it with empty PR. Nobody was fined. Nobody’s voice was scrubbed.

Only then did people stick to sports.

Tom Brady refused to answer questions this week about Donald Trump, whose Make America Great Again hat was featured prominently in his locker last year. The non-sports page conversation about the NFL in the last week, not coincidentally, has been about Donald Trump.

Josh Gondelman, a lifelong Patriots fan and writer at Last Week Tonight, couldn’t move past it. He’s donating to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund every time the Patriots score this weekend. And it wasn’t really because he disagrees with Tom Brady. It’s because Tom Brady is clearly hiding something.

“I tweeted that Tom Brady's politics are garbage, which may have been hyperbolic,” Gondelman said in an email to The Daily Beast. “What I mean, in the cold harsh light of day, is that I wish he would engage more critically with politics given his well-documented terrible choice in red hats.”

Granted, the NBA has a more homogenous set of political beliefs than the NFL’s complicated relationship with the country’s new omnipresent president. The few Trump-supporting players (or in Mavericks’ center Andrew Bogut’s case, conspiracy-minded players) are less vocal. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is pro-Trump, for example, but he’s superseded as the team’s public face by LeBron James, the league’s best player and more prominent Democrat.

But as Dave Zirin said, “it’s more complicated than a red state-blue state thing.” It’s about control.

“This is about two teams drenched in symbolism. Super Bowl Sunday usually is a day where we forget about politics. The eyes of the nation are on this event. It’s grown bigger in recent years, even as the TV audience has splintered,” said Zirin. “There are a lot of folks who aren’t in the mood for this. It’s a dark feeling across a lot of the country. You have to address it.”

Or you have to be allowed to address it. It’s the only way to excise it.

“That sort of demonization, the NBA players just don’t have it. They just don’t regret it. They realize they have a platform. And they think, ‘I’ve got a platform and I’m gonna use it,’” said Zirin.

There is no impenetrable biodome that will separate the NFL from the concept of race and politics, as much as Goodell (and even Trump) want that to be true. Sure enough, when someone pricks a hole in the politics-free bouncy castle that was constructed instead, he or she will be pilloried for breaking down the NFL’s speech wall for days.

That’s all well and good. But after Lady Gaga or some kneeling player becomes the new Beyonce or Colin Kaepernick on Monday morning, you have to wonder if that’s not a side effect of a league scrubbed of all politics and fined into silence.

Maybe it’s the point.