Why DeflateGate Is a Cultural Problem

The rules most zealously enforced — no gold cleats in the NFL! — are the ones that matter least.

Marshawn Lynch, a.k.a. “Beast Mode,” starting running back for the Seattle Seahawks, is being fined $20,000 by the National Football League for grabbing his crotch during a touchdown celebration amid last week’s NFC championship game against the Green Bay Packers. Prior to the game, Lynch had planned to wear custom-made gold cleats — footgear finished with a 24-karat gold-flake paint, featuring gold-chrome-plate soles; value: $1,100. For that, the NFL threatened to outright suspend him.

Perhaps those penalties are warranted. But it seems that the NFL has bigger problems to worry about.

Like, for instance, the New England Patriots, the other half of upcoming Super Bowl XLIX, who apparently deflated eleven of twelve footballs used in their AFC championship-game victory over the Indianapolis Colts. Softer footballs, say many players, are more easily handled in cold weather, but the NFL is strict about the proper pressure and weight of game balls. The NFL’s official investigation is still under way, but sources inside the league tell ESPN that the balls were, indeed, under-inflated. And it could get worse: The Baltimore Ravens say that the Patriots did the same in their post-season matchup, and the Colts suggested the possibility that the Patriots were underinflating balls months ago, following their November 16 regular season meeting.

Assuming any of the above is true, it would be an example of what most people typically call “cheating.” But the same NFL that threatens to suspend Marshawn Lynch for flamboyant footwear could issue the proverbial slap on the wrist to the Pats: “If any individual alters the footballs, or if a non-approved ball is used in the game, the person responsible and, if appropriate, the head coach or other club personnel will be subject to discipline, including but not limited to, a fine of $25,000.” Roger Goodell, whose disciplinary judgment is something less than Solomonic, may well avoid doing anything that could adversely affect February 1’s big game.

The NFL has rules upon rules upon rules. Professional football in the United States might be the most painstakingly regulated sport in history — and, increasingly, the rules most zealously enforced are those that don’t seem to matter.

How could such a thing have come to pass?

Ask Marty Hahne, a.k.a. “Marty the Magician,” who, with his rabbit, Casey, performed astonishing feats of enchantment for school groups in the Springfield, Mo., area — until, in July 2013, he was informed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that Casey would be confiscated if Hahne did not submit to the agency a “disaster” plan for his rabbit, detailing how he planned to protect his furry friend in the event of “flooding,” “earthquake,” “landslide/mudslide/avalanche,” “wildfire,” or “intentional attack.”

Or ask Kenneth Wright, who was arrested in his boxer shorts when a dozen gun-wielding Department of Education agents — “it was like a task force of a SWAT team,” said a neighbor — raided his home in 2011. The DOE’s Inspector General’s Office executes search warrants on “bribery, fraud, and embezzlement of federal student-aid funds.” Problematic crimes, to be sure, but not ones that should lead to an active-shooter situation.

Meanwhile, state authorities are similarly unrestrained. In June 2013, around the time federal authorities were threatening to repo Marty Hahne’s rabbit, six plainclothes officers from the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control swarmed the car of University of Virginia co-ed Elizabeth Daly, thinking that the LaCroix sparkling water the 20-year-old had just purchased from Harris Teeter was a twelve-pack of beer. Daly panicked, tried to drive off, and accidentally struck multiple officers; she was charged with three felonies. (The state eventually dropped the charges and paid Daly $212,000 in compensation.)

Just over a month later, across the country, nine Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officers, along with four deputy sheriffs, swooped down on the Society of St. Francis Animal Shelter in Kenosha, Wis., a no-kill shelter to which an Illinois family had brought a baby fawn they believed had been abandoned by her mother. “Giggles” the fawn, who was scheduled to go to an Illinois wildlife reserve the following day for further rehabilitation, was euthanized on the spot, because Wisconsin law forbids the possession of wildlife. It was later reported that, in preparation for the raid, the DNR had conducted aerial surveillance of the Society’s barn.

But as the law’s minutiae are being fervently prosecuted by every badge-brandishing bureaucrat in every government agency from Sitka to St. Petersburg, the nation’s chief executive, constitutionally tasked with enforcing the law, has decided that the words of the law do not much matter. In 2011, the Obama administration announced that it would stop enforcing the Defense of Marriage Act. The next year, under the auspices of “prosecutorial discretion,” the administration stopped enforcing immigration laws against young illegal immigrants. Two years later, following a laughably disingenuous expansion of prosecutorial discretion to effectively amnesty half of the illegal-immigrant population currently in the country, the president plainly proclaimed to have “changed” the law — in explicit violation of the constitution, of course, the supreme law of the land. And one need hardly the mention the multiple occasions on which the president has refused to enforce  — or ordered the non-enforcement of — the provisions of the health care law that he signed.

The law, as Saint Paul suggested, was a matter of both letter and spirit. But our over-inflated regulatory state, with its bloated bureaucratic class, has all but forsaken the latter, while our puffed-up executive has utterly abandoned the former. At one and the same time, our land of laws, not men, grows impulsively legalistic and alarmingly lawless.

Is it any surprise, then, that in a country more concerned with crisis plans for bunnies than crises at its borders, a Michael Jackson move in the end zone is the real menace?

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. fellow at National Review.


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