On the surface, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is acting strangely in the “Deflategate” controversy. He launched an expensive crusade against one of the league’s great players over what is at most a tiny rules infraction, without much evidence. Goodell also has alienated one of the league’s most powerful and respected owners, Robert Kraft.
To devoted fans of the New England Patriots (full disclosure: I’m one of them), Goodell’s actions are puzzling, but all fans should be concerned. It is not clear, because of measurement and statistical analysis issues, that there was a rules violation at all. And an increasing number of sportswriters and legal analysts think that Tom Brady and the Patriots were railroaded and treated unfairly.
So why would Goodell treat the equivalent of scuffing a baseball as though it were taking performance-enhancing drugs or gambling on the game? No one knows for sure what is motivating him. It may be that Deflategate has kept the NFL in the headlines, or that it has distracted the public from more serious issues such as brain injuries.
But there is another possibility as well: Political science research suggests that Goodell may be taking a page from the classic autocrat’s playbook about how to stay in power.
If you’ve been living under a rock or aren’t a Boston sports fan, Deflategate is a football controversy surrounding whether Brady, the Patriots quarterback, was “generally aware of” or deliberately participated in a “scheme” to lower the inflation level of footballs in the first half of the AFC Championship game on Jan. 20.
After an investigation, Goodell slapped a $1 million fine on the team, stripped it of draft picks and suspended Brady for the first four games of the 2015 season (well beyond the $25,000 fine suggested in the NFL Gameday Operations Manual). Brady appealed, Goodell turned down his appeal, the NFL filed for confirmation of the suspension in the Southern District of New York, and a case is pending in court.
To explain Goodell’s behavior, think about dictators such as Kim Jong-un of North Korea. They often have to do some unsavory things to get and stay in power. Moreover, these things are often effective — otherwise, why do them? Goodell’s behavior in the Deflategate case is similar.
First, a key lesson from the autocrat’s playbook is this: After you take power, eliminate the powerful people who helped get you there. They know your weaknesses and the skeletons in your closet. For Goodell, no one fits that description like Kraft, who owns the Patriots.
Goodell entered the Deflategate scandal significantly weakened, with some commentators calling for his replacement because of perceived mismanagement of controversies about concussions and domestic violence during the 2014 season. Throughout that period, Kraft supported Goodell so strongly that he was called the “assistant commissioner.”
Now, because of Deflategate, Goodell gets to restore his reputation as a tough guy and show that he is even-handed by cracking down on one of his former allies. Moreover, given that some people thought Goodell went easy on the Patriots during the 2007 Spygate incident, he now gets a do-over to prove just how tough he is.
Goodell has isolated Kraft among the group of NFL owners, significantly reducing his influence. Kraft has complained bitterly about Goodell’s behavior, going so far as to say that he was “wrong to put my faith in the league” about treating the Patriots fairly.
Second, all leaders (not just autocratic ones) have to pay close attention to what political scientists call their “selectorate,” or the people who keep them in power. Some types of autocrats face very small selectorates, however, meaning it is the approval of just a few people that matters to them.
For Goodell, that’s the owners of NFL teams. And now that Kraft is an opponent, Goodell is even more beholden to a “small handful of influential owners,” potentially including the owners of the Baltimore Ravens, the Indianapolis Colts and the Dallas Cowboys.
What do those teams have in common? A dislike of the Patriots, who have consistently beaten them over the past decade plus (again, speaking as a totally objective Patriots fan). Thus, to keep the support of his selectorate and stay in power, Goodell is almost obligated to be tough on the Patriots and Brady.
Third, autocratic leaders often engage in brazen manipulation of the media to try to shape public perception. For example, after Russia’s invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin placed more controls on the Russian media to try to ensure that the only story the Russian public hears is his.
What about Goodell? Leaks most likely from the NFL have helped, uh, inflate the Deflategate scandal every step of the way. On Jan. 21, ESPN reporter Chris Mortensen reported that 11 of the 12 Patriots balls in the first half of the AFC Championship game were “two ounds per square inch below what’s required by NFL regulations.”
This report ended up being false, but it turned a minor complaint by the Colts into an international media firestorm. Although the source of the leak has never been proved, the NFL (or at least an employee) is the most plausible source. Needless to say, the NFL never officially corrected the false report. As any autocrat would say, it is critical to paint your opponent as a bad guy.
Similarly, when Brady appealed his suspension, the morning before the NFL released its decision on the appeal, rumors started flying that he had destroyed his cellphone to avoid accountability. This painted Brady in a terrible light and led to sympathy for the NFL when Goodell released the decision.
Of course, when the transcript of Brady’s appeal came out (over the NFL’s objections), it turned out that he was not asked for his phone itself and never warned that destroying his phone (which, as a celebrity with privacy concerns, he does regularly when he gets a new one) could lead to punishment. Goodell also misrepresented Brady’s testimony to make him sound evasive.
Finally, a classic strategy for autocrats worried about “internal” threats (such as a civil war or an insurgency) rather than “external” threats (such as being invaded) is called “coup-proofing.” This is when autocrats deliberately weaken their own military because it makes the military less likely to cause problems for them.
Coup-proofing helps us understand Deflategate as well. The New England Patriots are the most successful NFL franchise of the Goodell era, with Brady one of the greatest players in NFL history. They are yearly Super Bowl contenders in a way that threatens the “Any Given Sunday” parity the NFL prefers. There is almost certainly jealousy and frustration around the NFL because of the Patriots’ sustained success. Cutting them down to size by decreasing their prospects this season (the Brady suspension) and in upcoming seasons (the draft picks) thus serves Goodell’s interest of staying in power.
In sum, it seems that Goodell has been doing his homework — in the political science section of the library. As with all autocrats, however, there is an important paradox: What you do to gain power also puts that power at risk. As more Deflategate material becomes public, it has painted Goodell, his practices and the NFL in a negative light. And this could undermine owner support for Goodell’s hard-line stance.
Perhaps the NFL will decide to take the high road and settle with Brady out of court. But little the NFL has done throughout this process seems fair, unless one considers the desire of autocrats to stay in power and what they are willing to do to make sure that happens.
Michael C. Horowitz (twitter: @mchorowitz) is an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and, if it’s not already clear, a New England Patriots fan.