This season will end the way it began for the NFL, with its integrity in question and our intelligence insulted.
But while that might seem like a bad business model to follow, know this: The league also will end its season with boffo broadcast ratings for Super Bowl XLIX and, as NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus said with an air of certainty, "Sunday will be the biggest day for ad revenue in television history."
"The business of football, and the business of the Super Bowl," Lazarus added, "is very good."
So much for deflation, huh?
Controversy sells. Comedy, too. And these past 10 days with the New England Patriots and Deflategate — or Ballghazi, or PSI: New England, or whatever you want to call it — have provided us all with a bit of both. From the explosion of outrage to the outrageous explanations, all of it is cast against a backdrop of sixth-grade humor: everyone laughing at everyone else talking about balls.
It led the network nightly news last week, and also "Saturday Night Live," which just about says it all, though Tom Brady probably said it best when he reminded an overheated pack of reporters, "This isn't ISIS." By the time Tuesday's media-day circus was finished in Phoenix, his coach, Bill Belichick, was done talking about it — the accusations of cheating, his franchise's tarnished reputation, the evidence from the NFL's airtight investigation being leaked to the media.
He'd seen his impromptu science fair project dissed by Bill Nye "the Science Guy" and been heckled by sock puppets, and, well, that was more than enough foolishness for him, as the exasperated coach told reporters, "I've covered everything that I can cover."
His owner, Robert Kraft, one of the most influential billionaires in a league full of them, had provided some cover of his own Monday, reading a prepared statement after the Patriots arrived in Arizona. In his remarks, Kraft didn't just challenge assertions that his team had broken rules in the AFC championship game by deflating footballs. ("A bunch of hogwash," he said.) Kraft also challenged the league to prove it — to "definitively determine" it, actually — or offer up an apology.
In the meantime, Kraft said, "It's time to talk about football."
Question of trust
On that, and maybe only that at the moment, he and commissioner Roger Goodell probably can agree, because the league has spent months fighting a losing battle of its own, its credibility called into question repeatedly.
There were incidents and accidents, as Paul Simon once sang in a song about self-discovery, and hints and allegations. They ranged from scandals surrounding the NFL's domestic-violence problems — Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, Ray McDonald, and so on — to the persistent problems involving player safety and concussions to the playoff officiating that became a false-flag operation unto itself.
Now we have a new "independent" investigation — led by NFL executive vice president Jeff Pash and attorney Ted Wells and backed by a team of forensic experts — with a promise it'll be "thorough and objective," consulting physicists and interrogating rogue ballboys.
And if the Patriots are peeved about this perception that they habitually bend the rules — fueled by the "Spygate" videotaping penalties, as well as the team's dynastic run the last 15 years — there's also a feeling around the league that, as Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman said this week, "Perception is reality."
"Will they be punished?" Sherman asked rhetorically Monday. "Probably not."
He cited as his reasoning what he called a "conflict of interest" between Goodell and Kraft, one of the commissioner's top confidantes among the NFL's 32 owners and a vocal backer of his during the Rice investigation this fall.
Kraft scoffed at that suggestion Tuesday, firing a few shots back at Sherman, even tweaking the players' union. But that only highlights one of the underlying problems the NFL has right now, a growing lack of trust — between players and the league, and the league and its fans. Nearly half the 3,000 respondents in a recent survey by a USC marketing professor identified the NFL as a "sleazy" organization, and slightly more than half said they don't trust NFL players.
Everyone's watching, nobody's talking
Now, I'd trust that poll about as much as I'd trust my Super Bowl prediction. (Patriots over the Seahawks, 31-24.) But even the progress the NFL has made in recent months has proved divisive.
After the public-relations disaster that the Rice investigation became, Goodell has, by all accounts, worked hard to help raise awareness about domestic violence while improving his league's response. He also had the NFL's code of conduct policy rewritten, but by doing so without collective bargaining, it prompted last week's grievance filed by the NFL Players' Association. (Expect to hear a lot more on that subject today from Phoenix as union leaders hold their media event in advance of Goodell's annual address Friday.)
And yet while all of this stems from the league's own mixed messages sent by years of relative inaction, one of the more talked-about commercials during Sunday's game figures to be a 30-second spot funded by the league. It's a chilling anti-domestic violence PSA — part of the NFL's "No More" campaign — in which a woman calls a 911 operator pretending to order a pizza because she is unable to speak freely.
Of course, most of the pregame hype focused on far less serious matters, including among other nonsense, Seahawks star Marshawn Lynch's ability to say nothing, over and over. For nearly 5 minutes at Tuesday's mandatory media session, the interview-averse running back answered more than two dozen questions with the same response, "I'm here so I won't get fined." Wednesday, he offered a slightly different refrain: "You know why I'm here."
Yeah, we know. And it's the same reason we'll all be where we are Sunday for that unofficial national holiday, sitting on the couch with nearly half the country watching the Super Bowl, arguing about cheese balls and whatever else we're being served.