I'm not sure it's appreciated often enough how completely bizarre it was that the lights went out at the Super Bowl this year. This is an event in which Diana Ross once performed "I Will Survive" while essentially engulfed in flames before flying off in a helicopter. The Super Bowl is renowned for its precision, its organization, its utter lack of unpredictability: It is not just the signature cultural event on the calendar, it is also the largest and blandest corporate conference in the country. Nothing strange is supposed to happen at the Super Bowl; that's what makes it the Super Bowl. And this year, the lights went out. In the middle of the game. I still can't believe it happened.
(As a side note, for my own personal amusement, I like to go back and watch the CBS broadcasters attempt to ad-lib their way through 45 minutes of dead air time. As I wrote at the time, "Shannon Sharpe just kept talking and talking, until his sentences began to resemble one of those sets of refrigerator magnets that assemble random sequences of words. At one point, I thought he might be gargling.")
It is no wonder that some players on the Baltimore Ravens are having a hard time coming to terms with the lights turning off in the middle of the Super Bowl, and all told, it's even less of a wonder who they blame. Terrell Suggs, who strikes me as maybe a bit nuttier than your average "sit down on the couch with the fireplace nearby" soft-focus Lisa Salters interview subject, thinks that it's all a Roger Goodell plot.
I don't know if other people think this, or if it's just the Baltimore Ravens. (Ray Lewis said something similar.) Do other people think this? I would think you have to be a Baltimore Raven, to have that unique combination of intense bias, tunnel vision and a profession that largely consists of hitting other people and being hit in order to get your mind to work this way.
Besides a Raven, there isn't another person capable, I'd imagine, of thinking that it would somehow be in the best interest of the NFL to shut off the lights at its signature event in order to make a particular game closer in score. Imagine the conversation:
Goodell: The Ravens are winning by too many points. We have to do something.
NFL minion: I'm sorry?
Goodell: Let's shut off the lights.
NFL minion: But sir, this will damage the reputation of a city we desperately want to be central to the NFL experience. It will cause our broadcast partners, who pay us billions of dollars in large part for this specific game, innumerable headaches. It will plunge a stadium of 72,000 people into near-total darkness. It will make us look like we don't know what we're doing, that we have no control over our signature event. It will be something we will be mocked for decades from now.
Goodell: Yes. But it might maybe possibly perhaps affect the momentum of the game, shifting it back slightly toward the 49ers.
NFL minion: Will it?
Goodell: Only one way to find out! [pulls plug]
Now, the beauty of any conspiracy theory is that it is impossible to refute one: Every time you come up with a piece of evidence that disproves it, all the conspiracy theorist has to do is adjust their theory slightly. (See: Faked moon landing, 9/11 inside job, Michael Jordan suspended for gambling, and so on.) This is why conspiracy theories can never go away: They're theories, and theories are really just a few sentences of opinions put together.
But, paradoxically, conspiracy theories end up sustaining exactly what they are attempting to thwart. To believe a conspiracy theory, you must have faith in institutions. Unreasonable faith. There is, in fact, something deeply conservative about conspiracy theorists. They believe in order, in a competent power structure, in a way that even George Will doesn't. To pull off a conspiracy, you have to believe that the people in charge are capable of not only pulling off a Rube Goldberg-esque plan that requires clockwork precision and timing, you also have to believe that they are capable of keeping it secret. You believe that the people in charge know what they're doing.
They don't, of course; they're dumb human beings like the rest of us, with bureaucracies and leaks and poor decisions that betray their fallibility. This is the secret of all adulthood, really: No one knows what they're doing. We're all sort of faking it. No matter what we try to project to the outside world, we're all just hanging on, trying to keep it together, to hide the screaming person inside who's terrified that it'll all fall apart. Roger Goodell is no different than anybody else, from Congress to David Stern to the Pope to the President to your third-grade teacher trying to get his/her class to settle down. We're all just trying to figure it out. We're trying to make it look like we're capable of handling all this. It's an illusion. And it's an illusion that sustains everything. All would collapse without it.
Roger Goodell is a master of this illusion: For all his faults as commissioner, he is outstanding at projecting an image of power, of control. (David Stern is excellent at this as well, in a way that Bud Selig, for all his successes, and Gary Bettman have never quite been.) He makes you believe that he's on top of everything, that there's nothing that surprises or scares him. This is a legitimate power, and Goodell wields it constantly. You see this in every profile about him, most famously in Peter King's February 2011 piece in Sports Illustrated, in which Michael Vick talks about being terrified of Goodell, as if he had disappointed his father. "The way Roger talked to me when I was still hiding from what I'd done was such a slap in the face," Vick said. "Like, 'Don't you lie to me!' With stronger language than that. It was rough."
Roger Goodell is just a person; all told, I'm pretty sure Michael Vick could take him in a feat of strength, if needed. But Goodell, just a scared kid like the rest of us, can instill the fear of the heavens into people who work for him, and that's a real skill. He looks like the guy controlling it all, even if he isn't.
So when Terrell Suggs or Ray Lewis claim that the NFL shut the lights off during the Super Bowl, or complains that the commissioner takes sides, he isn't insulting Goodell. He's giving him the highest compliment he can. He's saying that Roger Goodell is in charge, and that he can do whatever he wants. Roger Goodell surely laughed when he saw the Suggs' interview. And then he smiled, elated. All is going according to plan. Everything is working exactly as it should.