Here’s a good joke that’s becoming more accurate every day:
The NFL is truly fortunate that it’s coming off one of the most dramatic Super Bowls ever. Had that game turned out boring, how much more intense would the spotlight on the offseason’s dark parade of news have been? One of the league’s two largest stories—both are still ongoing—is the collective refusal to sign a quarterback who is unequivocally worthy of a job. Although recently concussed Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor will return to reclaim his job from Nathan Peterman, look at this heap of shit—this is what everyone waited all offseason for?
Blake Bortles spent his summer figuring out a way to refute any notion that he was a less hazardous first-round pick than Johnny Manziel in the 2014 NFL Draft. He was horrendous on a national broadcast. His best wide receiver is fed up with him. To an extent, Bortles’s failure is emblematic of the NFL’s ills—both a dire lack of talented quarterbacks, and a culture that gives him a starting job while Colin Kaepernick languishes.
345 Park Avenue isn’t blackballing Kaepernick—individual teams are, but this isn’t a centralized decision—but the league has created and profited from a pseudo-military code that discourages franchises from taking him. “Protecting the shield” isn’t merely a laughably ironic phrase to those with actual power, and they appear to believe the league’s integrity (such as it is) needs to be protected equally from protest and from crime.
But even the criminal-justice system is lacking, in the NFL’s eyes. Should a player be accused of a crime, the NFL has its own cops and courts. In part because of the lack of leverage of the players’ union, there isn’t any real rhyme or reason to how punishments are doled out; it depends on how much attention the offense receives and how bad it makes the league look. This is what Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott is currently going through, in the other biggest story of the summer. Elliott was suspended for six games for violations of the personal conduct policy; he appealed; the arbitrator upheld the suspension but allowed Elliott to play in Sunday’s primetime opener against the Giants; and the NFLPA sued the league in federal court to get the suspension thrown out completely. The process has been a mess—the lead investigator recommended that Elliott not be suspended—and now we’ve got two clusterfucks in different courts, one real and one kangaroo.
The NFL desires not only for the commissioner to be treated as infallible, like the Pope, but to maintain all-encompassing control over its employees. This latest round started with Ray Rice, but it isn’t merely about a need to look tough on domestic violence. It’s been said ad nauseam, but the league has done everything it can to position itself as moral arbiter, and it has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. Simply following the sport of pro football can introduce you to as many legal concepts as you’d find in reading the Washington Post’s A-section. You get roundtable discussions where woefully unequipped people try to parse a process that has gradually become as unintelligible as Dez Bryant’s catch, or fantasy football updates where suspensions are designated with the same medical symbol for injuries.
The actual football feels like an auxiliary part of the NFL experience now. Maybe this could be remedied by the league diverting attention to its fresh, new, young talent, but after the brutal nature of the sport takes some number of those potential stars out of the equation, you’re left with a majority of quarterbacks—the most visible, marketable position—who need more than one season to resemble anything exciting, while running backs are being shunted out of favor and wide receivers are getting their heads or knees lopped off by hits that look dirty although, really, who the fuck knows anymore? Why don’t other sports deal with this shit all the time? Why is it that their players are usually in the news for doing actual interesting things, both on and off the field? Why aren’t their news cycles so exhausting?
This isn’t a declaration that I will no longer watch football, or that football will die, because I don’t know when or if either of those will happen. But the NFL’s current model treats every player as both expendable and subordinate to a system that demands total fealty to league diktats, be they written, unwritten, and made up on the fly. That seems unsustainable, because the faces of the league—quarterbacks nearer to age 40 than they are to their rookie seasons–will retire, and eventually it will be players like Blake Bortles and Nathan Peterman, all the way down.