No doubt the stakes are orders of magnitude lower: then, a president disgraced by an unwinnable war; now, an NFL commissioner disgraced by his soft line on domestic violence—but there’s the sense of an old story repeating itself. It’s about the disillusionment of power. One day we nod our heads when a powerful man talks to us; the very next day, those same words are hollow. And the tipping point comes when some avatar of the middlebrow—the nightly news anchor, or the official Sports Guy—merely calls attention to what everyone already knows. You don’t become a Cronkite or a Simmons without an ear exceptionally attuned to consensus; and so, when the moment comes, all you have to do is announce a consensus that already exists. It’s true that Simmons has disliked Goodell for some time. But openly calling for his resignation seems like an important escalation
So the process of disillusionment is naturally conservative: as sudden as these moments of revolt look, they are long slow years in the making. The powerful get every opportunity not to make asses of themselves. To the extent which we value stability, that’s a good thing. But the cost of those years of stability at the top can be profound. In the time it took for public opinion to turn so sharply against Goodell that his resignation became a real possibility, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and league-sponsored racism have become as much a part of football jargon as the read option or the Tampa 2. The latest disaster, of course, has been the release of footage of running back Ray Rice punching his fiancée in the face—video the league had in its possession, and then seems to have falsely denied having when Rice was let off with a wrist-slap of a suspension.
When the collapse in public opinion took so many undeserved years and seemed to actually require footage of a man punching a woman in the face, it’s reasonable to ask: can we please get disillusioned faster? Can we figure out a way to do so that’s both uncompromising and accurate?
I’d suggest that we already can by listening more acutely when the powerful talk to us. For years, Goodell has had a personal slogan, trotted out in press conferences, league releases, and interviews: “protecting the shield.” The shield is the NFL’s logo, and protecting it has been Goodell’s self-assigned job description. As Hua Hsu wrote last winter:
The phrase was introduced and repeated over and over by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell—he was “protecting the shield” whenever he had to discipline a player or wayward owner. He “protects the shield” when he negotiates with the unions, hugs a first-round draft pick, or cuts league ties with Bradley Cooper. “Protecting the shield” is his way of dramatizing his solemn, possibly chivalrous duty to the league, its image, and its billions of dollars of annual revenue, and he has said it so many times, you’d be forgiven for thinking the words actually make sense.
I’ll go further: “protecting the shield” is idiotic. And it’s idiotic in an important way.
On the most basic level, you don’t protect a shield. A shield protects you. A shield is something you hold in front of what you want to protect—your face, for instance—while it absorbs arrows, sword-blows, or even bullets if you’re Captain America. A shield gets damaged and degraded in the process of doing its job, and that’s great, because the object behind it is both less durable and more valuable. A person who protects his shield (with his face?) is an idiot.
And this is not some abstruse metaphor. It’s something that any kid with an action figure or a TV tuned to Saturday morning cartoons can grasp. If that kid accidentally said “protect the shield” while he was playing with his toys, he’d laugh at himself for getting it backwards. A grownup who deliberately says “protect the shield,” again and again and again, has turned off a part of his brain.
Well—so what? Am I really going to be pedantic enough to tell you we can learn something important from the way Roger Goodell misused a metaphor? Yes, because when we are dealing with a figure whose every public appearance is desperately stage-managed, tics like “protect the shield” are actually some of the most reliable pieces of information we get. It’s just not that this is exactly what you’d expect to hear from a commissioner who is hugely dismissive of his players’ health (it’s their bodies that are ultimately protecting the shield). More importantly, when a public figure says things that disintegrate with a second’s thought, he’s shouting at us that he’s not actually thinking.
George Orwell got this. He told us to fear powerful people who speak automatically, who rattle off their meaningless stock phrases as if by reflex:
When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine.
One is not watching a live human being. There is an “uncanny valley” effect to watching Roger Goodell—as if, at any moment, his eyes are finally going to snap into focus. It’s an old and comparatively comforting thought that the powerful would often prefer the rest of us unthinking. Orwell’s thought is more chilling: that the powerful are often unthinking themselves. Not to my knowledge. As far as we are aware. We appreciate your opinion. Thank you for voicing your concern. A leader in the domestic-violence space. Protect the shield.
And even in the most charitable reading I can come up with—that the shield isn’t really a shield, but just the heraldic logo that stands for the league’s interests, a symbol of a symbol—there’s still something inhuman. As Hsu put it, “it’s about the very organizational logic of calling it ‘the shield’ and asking for protection. It’s the growing chasm between those who actually govern the league and their interchangeable employees.”
There is no shield. There is an association of billionaires and their employees, up to and including Goodell. And for a very long time, it’s been well understood how individual human beings, with all their warts, become much less obnoxious when they are subsumed under a bloodless symbol. About 200 years ago, the philosopher-activist Jeremy Bentham pointed out the powerful alchemy that turns a mediocre blueblood into The Crown, that turns the decisions of a small group of robed justices into The Law, and that turns the interests of individual rich men into Property. Each of these images, he wrote, is “a phantom which, by means of the power with which the individual or class is clothed, is constituted an object of respect and veneration.”
The Crown, The Law, and Property sound much more like facts of nature than what they are in truth: human objects that can be made and unmade and amended by humans. And so does The Shield. Again, the ordinary possibility is that powerful people who hide behind these shining shields want us to think this way. The frightening possibility is that they themselves think this way. That the Inner Party is both the subject of and the victim of its own agitprop.
If that’s the case, laughing at them—“If you were stranded on a desert island, with only one book to keep you company, wouldn’t that be better for everyone? #AskCommish”—is actually the most constructive thing we can do. If it’s borderline infuriating that Goodell’s fall took so long even in the age of Twitter, there’s at least some encouragement to be had in the fact that it’s easier than ever to call bullshit in real time.
Look: I can’t write this without a bit of self-hate. This is just football. And my own inner censor is telling me that I’m ruining it for myself by even thinking about what Roger Goodell may or may not be thinking about.
But my reaction to Goodell doesn’t really come from a place of considered thought, either. It only comes from “a curious feeling.” The feeling of being on hold with a call center. The rankle of being openly bullshitted. The chill of being spoken to as if by a machine communicating with machines. None of this matters because it takes an English professor or a Jeremy Bentham to unravel. It matters because, I suspect, these are almost things we know with our bodies. These things have to unlearned. They have to be suppressed. And that is why a deserved disillusionment is a relief: the almost physical release of letting ourselves know what we already know.
Rob Goodman is the the co-author of Rome’s Last Citizen and a Ph.D. student in political science at Columbia University. He is a former congressional speechwriter.