After reviewing the NFL's ongoing legal battle against pop star M.I.A., two things seem clear:
1. League commissioner Roger Goodell and his team of attorneys believe the make-believe world of NFL Films is real;
2. No one who works at the NFL actually pays attention to the NFL.
Earlier this week, The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that the NFL has added an additional $15.1 million claim to a previous $1.5 million arbitration case against M.I.A., which the league began pursuing following the 2012 Super Bowl. During the game's Madonna-headlined halftime concert, the Sri Lankan singer and rapper briefly extended her middle finger while mouthing "I don't give a s---," prompting the NFL to file a breach of contract suit that claims she tarnished the league's goodwill and reputation by showing -- ahem -- "flagrant disregard for the values that form the cornerstone of the NFL brand and the Super Bowl."
I mentioned the ahem part, right?
Look, I'm not a lawyer. However, I'm pretty sure M.I.A. is in the clear here, with the entire case falling under the venerable judicial defense theories of "Are You Serious?" and "Pot, Kettle, Black, Discuss." As she rightly notes in her own legal papers, the NFL is characterized by "profane, bawdy, lascivious, demeaning and/or unacceptable behavior by its players, team owners, coaching and management personnel and by performers chosen and endorsed by NFL to perform in its halftime shows."
Cases in point? M.I.A.'s filing points out that Michael Jackson grabbed his genitalia during one Super Bowl halftime show; that Prince used lighting, shadows and a giant sheet to transform his guitar into a giant, post-Viagra penis during another; and that the same Madonna performance that saw M.I.A. briefly flip the bird also saw a group of youngish-looking female dancers "lewdly thrust their elevated pelvic areas in a manner unmistakably evocative of sexual acts." Inverted twerking, basically.
Beyond halftime entertainment, M.I.A.'s basic argument is spot-on: The only world where the NFL is a bastion of wholesome, inoffensive, all-American milk-and-cookies goodness is the manufactured one of "Play 60" commercials, and that's only because the cute little kids aren't strapping on football helmets and smashing each other's still-developing pediatric brains, Friday Night Tykes-style. In reality, professional football is decadent, borderline depraved, a brand that's cornerstones are: (a) gambling; (b) selling beer; (c) violence; (d) biochemical augmentation; (e) brain damage; (f) skipping out on the bill for said brain damage; (g) indirectly profiting off cancer; (h) charging actual money for preseason games; (i) pretending that reading the Declaration of Independence out loud every couple of years makes items A-I OK; (j) I could go on, but eventually, the alphabet runs out of letters.
If anything, M.I.A. is being too kind.
Should we talk values? Let's talk values. A group of football players in New Orleans allegedly participates in a bounty system in which players are paid money to physically maim their opponents, within the context of a sport in which players are paid money to physically maim their opponents, and the most gifted maimers end up in the Hall of Fame. The NFL goes to DEFCON 1. Meanwhile, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam's trucking company is embroiled in an ongoing federal criminal investigation, while Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf was ordered last year to pay $84.5 million in damages to former business partners he defrauded with what a judge termed "evil motive," and could be facing a criminal investigation of his own. That noise coming from the law-and-order commissioner's office? Crickets. (In Goodell's defense, he's not an idiot, and certainly knows who pays his $44.2 million salary.)
The NFL is a business where employees from upper management on down wonder if the company can actually handle the monstrously disruptive, totally-unprecedented-in-an-American-workplace presence of an openly gay coworker, or if said openly gay coworker will somehow "chemically imbalance" the office, like a walking, shoulder-pad wearing strain of MRSA. A business considering the adoption of a 15-yard penalty for in-game use of the n-word, even though it has an entire corporate division named after a Native American ethnic slur. (But hey, George Allen says "Redskins" is a-OK, so no biggie, right? The man is an expert on linguistic racial respect). A business that inflicts brain damage on its workforce and then lies about it to avoid having to pay for the human wreckage incurred; that increases workday productivity by giving employees a dangerous post-surgical anesthetic, Toradol, in total disregard of the drug's FDA warning label; that fights tooth and nail against disability claims and worker's compensation suits and laws in order to pass the cost of office injuries on to the rest of us. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell once invoked the "Pottery Barn Rule" when discussing the American invasion of Iraq: If you break it, you own it. In pro football, it's more like if you break it, have it go apply for Medicare.
Speaking of taxpayer money, the NFL is a subsidized leech, the ethanol of the sports world. We, the people, grant the league lucrative broadcast antitrust protections -- and in return, team owners hold cities and states hostage for sweetheart stadium financing deals that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. We offer to host the Super Bowl, and the NFL sticks us up for petty tax breaks, including -- no, really! -- free parking. The league office is registered as a nonprofit even though of the $2.4 million it gave to charity in 2012, $2.1 million went to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Add it up, and the NFL's fiscal policy is essentially a giant, I-don't-give-a-damn middle finger to the public, extended year-round.
The league shouldn't go after M.I.A. for showing "flagrant disregard" for its values -- it should go after her for doing such a half-assed job of expressing those values.
All of that said, what makes the NFL's arbitration case so amazing isn't its event horizon-level hypocrisy -- though granted, that is pretty jaw-dropping -- but rather the sheer pointlessness of it. Every criticism listed above is well know. And guess what? No one cares. Everybody knows the NFL is a flag-wrapped moral con, a Potemkin Village of soft-sell junior high gym class virtue, all teamwork and character and discipline and playing the right way and blah blah blah zzzzzzz. And we still watch football. Because we love football, can't get enough, would probably support 11 different NFL studio shows if ESPN didn't feel 10 were sufficient. Last season, football viewership was pretty much up across the board, and league games accounted for nine of the 10 most-watched telecasts of 2013 -- a ratings bonanza that took place two years after M.I.A. supposedly laid waste to pro football's good name.
Dear NFL: You claim that M.I.A. hurt you, but where's the actual, you know, damage? I mean, besides to your fainting couches?
Last fall, PBS aired the too-hot-for-ESPN documentary League of Denial, an exposé of the NFL's dubious, Big Tobacco-esque handling of player concussions and brain damage. Investigative journalists Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada published an accompanying, in-depth book of the same name. Neither the book nor the film did the NFL's brand any favors -- in fact, it's almost impossible to read and/or watch League of Denial and not view pro football in a different, more negative light. So how did the league respond? By doing nothing. No lawsuits. No blustery demands for financial recompense. Of course, the league likely didn't pursue legal action because the truth is an absolute defense, and besides, the last thing the NFL wants is additional discovery on its brain trauma shenanigans (see the proposed concussion class action lawsuit for more). But still: The film came from PBS, the book from a major publisher. The Fainaru brothers work for ESPN. All three are worthy opponents. But the NFL steered clear -- the better, it seems, to pick a fight with a pop star, because really, how dare she?
In February, league investigator Ted Wells released a 144-page report detailing the vicious harassment of Miami lineman Jonathan Martin, another teammate and a team assistant trainer by three members of the Dolphins, most notably lineman Richie Incognito. Rife with sexism, homophobia, racial slurs and petty schoolyard cruelty, the document is a detailed case study of bullying, of picking on someone just because you can, a vivid example of how not to wield power. If the NFL's continuing hounding of M.I.A. is any indication, no one at the league paid attention to it, either.