The Super Bowl is this weekend. You might have heard about that. This year, there is controversy surrounding one of the teams playing in it. You’ve likely had a hard time not hearing about that.
It seems that, two weeks ago, the New England Patriots deflated 11 of the 12 balls they were supposed to provide for the AFC Championship Game, so they would be easier to grip in the rain and cold.
In other words, they cheated.
Despite the fact that the league has concluded the Patriots deliberately broke the rules to create an unfair competitive advantage, they were not barred from the Super Bowl and replaced by their opponents, the Indianapolis Colts. The NFL is still conducting an investigation into who was responsible and who knew about it.
Meanwhile the Patriots will get a chance to play for the title and activate the bonus clauses in the contracts of their players and coaches that are triggered by reaching a Super Bowl and winning one.
So, yeah. There’s a lot of money involved.
But that’s not really the point of this blog.
A lot has been made over “Deflategate” — how it tarnishes the Patriots’ legacy, who knew what, and whether or not this “manufactured controversy” is worthy of the media attention it is getting instead of real emergencies like climate change, homelessness, and racism.
If this whole flap were just over whether the Patriots cheated to get to the Super Bowl (and this is a team that was penalized three years ago for cheating, so it stands to reason they’ve been cheating all along and just got caught this time), I’d be behind the argument that Deflategate is getting too much attention. Yes, I’d still be rooting for the Seahawks on Sunday, because I hate cheaters, but I wouldn’t feel compelled to blog about in a space I usually reserve for discussing my writing and my life.
But speaking of those Seahawks, there’s a piece of this story that is not getting a lot of media attention. It’s getting some, to be sure, but not the sensationalized lead stories on the sports networks every night.
Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch wanted to wear gold shoes in the NFC Championship Game a few hours before the Patriots cheated to win the AFC game. This is a violation of the NFL uniform policy. So the league told him the first time he stepped out onto the field in illegal shoes, it would cost his team 15 yards for Unsportsmanlike Conduct. The second time, he would be ejected.
From a conference championship game. When he is one of the best, most important players on the team.
Lynch has also made a habit recently of grabbing his cr0tch when he scores. Such a gesture may have been good for Michael Jackson back in The Day, but the NFL finds it inconsistent with its alleged Wholesome Family Entertainment image.
So they’ve already fined him into the five figures for doing it, and they’ve threatened him with the same penalties if he does it in the Super Bowl as they did for his proposed footwear in the NFC Championship Game.
Now, I get it to an extent. There are a lot of people in Sunday’s audience who do not want to see a celebrity commit crude gestures in the biggest televised sports event of the year. And the only way to keep guys from violating multi-million-dollar sponsorship contracts is to make sure it’s painful for doing so.
But let’s put this in perspective.
Marshawn Lynch is central to his team’s offensive strategy. His skill set will have an impact on the outcome of the game. And the league is suggesting he will be ejected if he does not play by the rules of good taste and what he’s allowed to wear.
And the league knows this will have an impact on the competitive balance of the game. They know it could influence the outcome. That’s why they’re doing it. They’re trying to pressure Lynch into doing what they want by making him feel he’d let his teammates down.
Meanwhile, the league does not feel any punishment needs to be handed out to the Patriots before the Super Bowl. Despite denials, there is little doubt Patriots quarterback Tom Brady knew the balls had been deflated. He almost certainly paid someone to take care of it for him. One Hall-of-Fame player and coach after another has come out this week saying there is no doubt that something like this only happens because that’s how the quarterback wants it.
But there is no talk of Brady being suspended from the Super Bowl.
The fact that the balls were deflated so they would be easier to grip, throw, and catch in the cold and rain obviously and certainly had an impact on the outcome of the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots had an advantage the Colts did not.
So the NFL is concerned enough about good taste and uniform codes that it is willing to change the competitive balance of the biggest game of the year by penalizing and/or ejecting a player from one team, but it is willing to look the other way (at least long enough for everyone involved to participate in the game) when the other team breaks the actual rules of the game. Grabbing your crotch is offensive and worthy of suspension. Cheating to win is not.
Now, so what? It’s just a football game. In the grand scheme of things, this doesn’t measure up to the deaths of Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin. This is way less important than Russia annexing parts of Ukraine and ISIS beheading Japanese citizens. All that is true.
But there’s another element to this story that is getting even less press than the Lynch controversies.
Tom Brady and his legendary coach, Bill Belichick, are white. Brady, in fact, is the very picture of Pretty White Boy. Marshawn Lynch is black.
So the white guys are allowed to cheat to win and there are no consequences, if any, until after the season. But if the black guy steps out of line, he’ll be tossed out of the championship game.
Does the NFL not understand that it is reinforcing, however unintentionally, institutionalized racism? Does it not get that it is telling everyone in America (and really the world) that there is a different set of rules for white people than for black?
The league understands very well how its image and players influence fans — particularly young fans. That’s why it has a personal conduct code and why guys get suspended for being arrested.
It’s also why players are suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs. It creates an unfair advantage on the field and sends a bad message. It’s cheating.
But apparently cheating doesn’t matter if it’s the ball that’s being modified instead of the player’s body.
And the league seems to have forgotten how this season started. One of its most successful players punched out his then-fiancee in an elevator and dragged her by the hair out of it. After giving him a slap-on-the-wrist, two-game suspension, it changed its mind when public outrage suggested they’d done the wrong thing. They suspended him for the rest of the season, and his team cut him.
Ray Rice is black.
Before the season was two weeks old, another of its most popular players, Adrian Petersen, was arrested for beating his four-year-old son with a switch so severely he drew blood. Petersen was suspended for the rest of the season.
Adrian Petersen is black.
Now both those guys behaved reprehensibly, and the league rightly took action.
But the lack of any pre-Super Bowl consequences for Deflategate, coupled with the Marshawn Lynch flap, has sent a pretty clear statement about the 2014 NFL season:
If you’re a black man, and you step out of line, you will be punished. But if you’re white, you won’t. If you’re black, your punishment will hurt your team’s chances to win right now. If you’re white, any consequences will be handed down after the season.
And of course, none of this touches on the other theme Deflategate offers, which is that winning at any cost is acceptable. Well, at least so long as you’re white.
The National Football League has been instrumental in breaking color barriers and fostering workplace integration.
But a league that still has a team whose mascot is a racial slur, that does not have a majority black owner, and that seems to think black men wearing gold shoes and grabbing their crotches is worse behavior than white guys cheating to win a championship game still has a long way to go when it comes to racial equality.
It’s time the league woke up and smelled its own hypocrisy.