Roger Goodell and the Spartacus Super Bowl (UPDATED)

Actor and former NFL player Woody Strode, director Stanley Kubrick, and producer and actor Kirk Douglas on the set of Spartacus.
Actor and former NFL player Woody Strode, director Stanley Kubrick, and producer and actor Kirk Douglas on the set of Spartacus.

9/3/15 Update: Judge Richard M. Berman (of the US District Court of the Southern District of New York) ruled to overturn Brady’s suspension. For me, the most salient point of the ruling comes in this climactic sentence: “Goodell’s reliance on notice of broad CBA ‘conduct detrimental’ policy–as opposed to specific Player Policies regarding equipment violations–to impose discipline upon Brady is legally misplaced” (p. 32). You wait for it and wait for it–holding your breath for paired dashes–and then here it comes: LEGALLY MISPLACED!!! Is that the title of the next Reese Witherspoon comedy or what?

Woody Strode was one of the first four African-Americans to play pro football, along with Kenny Washington, Bill Willis, and Marion Motley. They all debuted in 1946, the first two playing for the Los Angeles Rams and the latter pair for the Cleveland Browns, a year before Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball (look for the documentary Forgotten Four on EPIX or Netflix). In Farewell to Football, I connect this development with Jerry LeVias integrating Southwest Conference college football in 1966 and the success of newly-integrated Beaumont Westbrook High School’s football team in 1982. Examen Question: Can football contribute to social transformations?

Fourteen years later, Strode portrayed a gladiator facing off against Spartacus, played by Kirk Douglas, in the epic film named for Douglas’s character and directed by Stanley Kubrick. Toward the end of the film, there’s a scene that reminds me of what probably motivates NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to go after Tom Brady, guns a’blazin’, for the quarterback’s alleged role in causing footballs to be improperly inflated in a playoff game. I mean, why blow a fuse, and several million dollars in lawyer’s fees, for such a minor infraction and given such a specious case?

As they await their death in the gladiatorial arena for fomenting revolution, Spartacus and the singer Antoninus (played by Tony Curtis, whose singing results in the unfortunate “lyricism” of poetic phrases like “lon-ga-go, lon-ga-go”), contemplate what they have accomplished. Spartacus reflects that “if just one man says ‘No, I won’t,’ Rome begins to fear.” In the film, we see this fear and anxiety in the overblown reactions of Roman patrician Crassus, played to scenery-chewing perfection by the Exquisite Ham of Hamlet Himself, Laurence Olivier.

In the Case of the Deflated Balls, I think we see the overreactions of the threatened NFL patrician Roger Goodell (yes, Pater Goodell was indeed a Senator), the Ginger Hammer hired by the owners to keep the players in their place.

A “humorous” example of how Commissioner Roger Goodell is seen by some NFL fans.

Through a friend of a friend (a high school football coach and a contributor to Farewell to Football), I got a chance to read the book that Sean Gilbert wrote and distributed to every NFL player as part of his campaign to unseat NFL Players Association (NFLPA) Executive Director DeMaurice Smith. Gilbert, who played defensive line in the NFL for 12 years, details how badly Goodell outmaneuvered Smith in negotiating the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA); many critics join Gilbert in believing that the NFLPA gave the Commissioner way too much power when it comes to player discipline. In return for his negotiating triumph, Goodell was granted a “$29 Million Tip” by the owners. The owners are the real Roman Empire in this analogy, and Goodell is just their tool. The owners have figured out the greatest business model in the history of crony capitalism (among others, see Gregg Easterbrook on this topic). The owners get the taxpayers to socialize the risks of building stadia (Houses of the Holy) while they enjoy the privatized profits. Through the salary cap, they limit the degree to which the players, who produce the principal value of the product that is the NFL, participate in the spoils of a money-printing machine created by the unholy alliance of the TV networks and the league as a collective negotiator of broadcast contracts. The owners rewarded Commissioner Crassus–er, Goodell, for negotiating a contract which guarantees that no player can say “No, I won’t.” Using the disciplinary powers negotiated into the CBA, publicly and vigorously, helps Goodell maintain his whip hand.

Even in the best of times, relations have been strained between NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (L) and
Even in the best of times, relations have been strained between NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (L) and “pretty boy” quarterback Tom Brady (R).

Tom Brady threatens to say “No, I won’t.” I won’t be railroaded by an “impartial investigation” conducted by, essentially, the NFL’s house law firm. I won’t be offered up as a ritual sacrifice in the public arena (Olivier’s blow-hard Crassus has to kill Woody Strode’s character with a dagger to the cervical spine when the African gladiator threatens to escape the arena and come after the Roman patrician with his trident). Brady is not Ray Rice, the patsy for the Commissioner’s 2014 display of newfound sensitivity concerning domestic violence. Brady has been the MVP of the Super Bowl three times, including the most recent, when he threw for all four of New England’s touchdowns. Brady and his wife are pretty close to owner-level wealth, and the thing is, Brady is the lead named plaintiff (of 10 named and others “similarly situated”) in the 2011 class-action complaint against the NFL concerning price-fixing and anti-competitive practices related to the owners’ lockout of the players as part of the renegotiation of the collective-bargaining-agreement (CBA). A class-action complaint is a pretty strong way of saying “No, I won’t.”

To put it in movie terms, and with all due respect to trailblazer Woody Strode, Brady is not Woody Strode (whose character is killed off before the film is even one-third through). Brady is Spartacus, and Goodell seems to have been maneuvered into using the modern equivalent to the rough tools of crucifixion, the Commissioner hanging up the quarterback in protracted uncertainty with the threat of a suspension for a quarter of Brady’s regular season. Sure, the rebellion of Spartacus was put down, but the ghastly spectacle of crucifixion spurred on a rebellion that eventually overtook Rome. (Even though Spartacus was written by a couple of hard-core Hollywood communists, they still seemed to know it would invoke the Mystical Body of Christ to have all of the survivors of the slave army proclaim, “I am Spartacus.”)

Goodell came in as Commissioner with some exalted idea of himself as the new cosmic sheriff, and just as Crassus claims that “Rome is an idea in the mind of God,” so Goodell imagines the NFL as the Platonic form of a shield the integrity of which he alone must crusade to protect (he could have prosecuted Brady for an equipment violation but instead elevated the charges to encompass that nebulous chimera, integrity of the game). The NFL will open the regular season with more than 30 players suspended, nearly one per team. Crassus lined the Appian Way with crucified slaves from Spartacus’s revolt, locating Spartacus himself on the cross closest to the gate into Rome. Goodell has kept the spectacle of Brady’s ritual humiliation in the public eye since before the Super Bowl. Will the first thing viewers see coming through the gate of the 2015 NFL season be the suspended body of MVP Tom Brady?

To find out more about Spartacus Super Bowl, check out the last chapter of my book, after you take a 15% discount on the paperback format:

47767911_High Resolution Front Cover_6181606 (2)Farewell to Football? An American Fan’s Examination of Conscience. Click here to order a copy in paperback or Kindle format.

 BLOG-READERS’ DISCOUNT: To receive a 15% discount on my peculiar spiritual memoir: Click on THIS LINK, click on “Add to Cart” button, and enter the discount code UQAEWA7F in the box in the lower right hand corner of the “Shopping Cart” page, and get 15% off!

An 1830 sculptural representation of Spartacus.
An 1830 sculptural representation of Spartacus.

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