The NFL disrespects football much more than the players it is trying to rein in.
The Patriots went 3-1 with Tom Brady suspended and we wondered (very tongue in cheek-ly) whether they actually needed him back. Then Brady came back Sunday and threw for 406 yards and three touchdowns in a giant “well, actually” to everyone who even joked that he might be losing his job to Jimmy Garoppolo — or would come back rusty, or even that his suspension might actually hurt the Pats’ playoff chances.
It was the quintessential Brady performance, brilliant and obnoxious, because just by virtue of his success he has become one of the most hated players in the NFL. Brady inspires loathing on par with players who are legitimately loathsome human beings. Brady has never done anything all that terrible. If we’re being honest, it’s his championship rings, his millions, and his idyllic family life, and that’s somehow irksome.
Yet, as it turns out, a lot of you can hate the player but respect his game.
Brady was suspended because another entity that may be more universally reviled, the NFL, fought him over deflated footballs. Brady and the NFL both drew out the length of the battle, but nobody’s finding any silver lining in what the NFL does. The DeflateGate saga was NFL fans’ unending nightmare, and now that it’s all over there’s only one side of it that we can begrudgingly tip our cap to.
Brady’s 2016 debut had to be at least a little bit cathartic for everyone, even to those who can’t stand him. The NFL has spent years fighting fun, and has ramped up its efforts recently. It has tightened its definition of taunting, banned players from wearing unapproved gear worn for noble causes, and threatened to fine its own teams for making GIFs of big plays for their fans to enjoy.
On Sunday, everybody complied. Players made their celebrations excessively lame. We all made do the best we could within the league’s social media restrictions. And Antonio Brown changed his cleats, which were a tribute to Muhammad Ali, after the NFL threatened to bench him — that is, the NFL almost sat one of the most exciting players in the league because of footwear you barely notice.
As annoying as Brady is, at least he’s an enemy of the NFL, too, the face of a franchise that relishes its opportunities to needle everyone, including its superiors. Brady and the Pats are equal opportunity griefers. As someone who grew up a Lions fan and very much doesn’t care for the Patriots, it pains me to see them once again among the best teams in the league. As someone who is filled with very real loathing for the NFL, I’m happy as hell to let the Pats’ season stand in for my middle finger.
And just look at the way Brady inspired his tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, two players I legitimately like despite their affiliation with football’s evilest empire.
Gronk on Brady: "Tom always brings the amp-ness." Gronk on his new word: "I don't know. I just say it."— MarkMaske (@MarkMaske) October 9, 2016
Martellus Bennett said he channeled Luke Cage -- "You know, he's a bulletproof brother from Marvel" -- to return from ankle injury pic.twitter.com/Lc4uwkqAgq— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) October 9, 2016
Unfortunately, to revel in the joy of Gronk and Bennett, we have to go through the NFL’s channels — but note that distinction. The NFL isn’t football. It’s simply a portal through which we view the game, and whose conventions its players must abide. It’s a middle man taking a cut, and its biggest concern is that its cut is being paid. If declining ratings are any indication, the NFL’s cut may be getting smaller.
And no, the fact that NFL viewership is down 11 percent across all networks isn’t necessarily a sign that football’s popularity is declining. Yet, despite the NFL’s assurances that it isn’t worried, decisions like trying to make Twitter GIFs its sole property suggest that the league is maybe, kinda, just a liiiitle bit worried that fans are finding other ways to enjoy football outside of its old-hat business model.
The NFL’s hard efforts to curtail players’ individual expression conveniently dovetails with their growing outspokenness, accessibility to fans and ease of which they can express themselves without the league’s help.
The NFL wants control of everything it believes it can control. That was the heart of DeflateGate by the end, whether Goodell could keep his collective bargaining agreement-granted right to be the sole arbitrator in disciplinary cases even if his judgment is unprecedented or unreasonable. Meanwhile, Brady fought to get back on the damn field.
Whether you sided with Brady or the NFL, you have to admit that there was a big difference between what both sides were fighting for, and that it was telling.
You may not like Brady, but at least he does a job inherent to the game. You can use every ounce of mind power to try to telepathically steer his passes into the hands of defensive backs when he’s playing your team, but you can’t deny that he’s a damn good foil, an archetypal villain, someone who responds to your hate by lighting up the field, compelling you to watch. Unless you were a Browns fan, you might have even come to realize that you missed him on Sunday. At least he had fun.
The NFL isn’t inherent to the game. It’s necessary for as long as we need gatekeepers to access professional football, but nobody could possibly care about the NFL like they care about Brady. The league is only a nuisance. By constantly interfering with football for its own interests, the NFL disrespects the game much more than the players it tries so obsessively to rein in. It is actively trying to deny fans and players ways to express their joy.
The only tragic thing about the NFL is that it is stupid, as well as hostile. If it had imagination, it might attempt to connect to its constituents in ways that give them freedom, all the while maintaining its cut. It could embrace the game and everything that make fans feel an emotional connection to football. Instead, the NFL bows to a bottom line and flails at whatever it thinks is an attack against it, presuming that all its problems are external.