Photograph by Getty Images

How the NFL Drug Raids Change the Game

The feds just may have figured out how to hit the league where it hurts.

It makes perfect sense that Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have taken over Adrian Peterson’s and Ray Rice’s spots in the national conversation. You still hear Peterson and Rice come up, but their places are now at the side table, in the follow-up stories, the italicized here’s another update on that story from last month, rather than the boldfaced NFL IN PERIL of September.  

This isn’t just happenstance: This is in fact the league’s strategy when it comes to dealing with controversy. It’s why commissioner Roger Goodell, facing the most treacherous crisis of his reign, disappeared from the public eye for more than a week, emerging only to answer questions (poorly) at a hastily called Friday afternoon press conference that everyone soon forgot about. Whether it’s retired players suing the league over the concussion crisis, player malfeasance, the league’s increasingly draconian labor relations policies, or even Brett Favre’s penis, the league has traditionally dealt with problems by ignoring them and assuming they will go away once people start watching football again. Amazingly, this generally works. The reason the NFL has been so untouchable—and Goodell so unassailable—is that the league consistently provides such staggering television ratings, and a product that’s so undeniably compelling despite (because of?) all its faults. We’re mad … until we start watching the games, and letting it all go. In the past, it’s never failed to work. How angry are you at Adrian Peterson and Roger Goodell right now? Not nearly as mad as you were in September, I bet. And all those people who said that this was it, they’re done watching football … with NFL ratings in the same stratosphere they always are, I’m thinking those people were lying. The NFL will always win you over, usually without even trying all that hard.

But the NFL may have finally met an antagonist it can’t seduce. The biggest news this weekend in the NFL was not the Arizona Cardinals going to 9-1 or Brady and the Patriots wiping out the Colts on national television. It was the sudden, shocking word that the DEA pulled off surprise raids on the locker rooms of several NFL teams after yesterday’s games. They conducted the raids at Washington’s Fed Ex Field—where Daniel Snyder’s team was hosting the Buccaneers—and the Giants’ Met Life Stadium after a Giants-49ers game. The Buccaneers were also spot-checked at the airport, and there were reports of other teams around the league having surprise federal visitors out of nowhere.

The DEA was looking for illegal painkillers, in response to a lawsuit filed this summer by a group of retired NFL players claiming that teams would force players pills to take pills to get them through debilitating injuries. Now, it’s worth noting that it’s unlikely the feds found any smoking guns. First, they did the raids on gameday, which is basically the least likely time any painkillers would be distributed. (It’s the day with the most scrutiny and strangers around, and also the day where adrenaline makes players feel the pain the least.) But more to the point: Many of the players in the lawsuit—including Jim McMahon and two other members of the 1985 Chicago Bears—played decades ago. Even if the NFL was constantly feeding its players painkillers to keep them upright, it obviously wouldn’t be done in nearly as crude a fashion as it was three decades ago. Teams have gotten better at everything over the last few decades, including handling pain. The idea that the feds would catch Jay Gruden firing opiods into his players’ mouths from a T-shirt cannon is ridiculous.

But nonetheless, the raids represent something new and ominous for the league. The fact is, almost nothing in the NFL is a secret anymore. (It’s the main reason no one believes Goodell when he claims he never saw the Rice elevator video.) This is a league that’s so profitable, with a public so thirsty for information, that it’s over-covered from every possible angle. (Typically, players and coaches learn they’re being fired or cut from reporters before the team even has time to get downstairs and tell them.) But these raids stunned everyone. No one in the NFL knew the feds were taking the lawsuit that seriously, to the point that they’d stop the Buccaneers at the airport to look for contraband. It was a level above what anyone could have anticipated, and even as the public has focused on football, Washington, responsive to a different sort of public opinion, is still paying attention.

The NFL has the power, thanks to its vast viewership (in a cable industry more desperate for it than ever), to brush its problems under the rug, to allow public s**tstorms like September’s to float idly by as we toss it all aside to scream at Tony Romo. But the one enemy that could puncture this bliss is the government. Sunday’s raids might have been awkward and clumsy and not all that successful. But they’re a sign: While we’re all focused on the games, the feds still have their eyes on Roger Goodell and the NFL. And who knows what they’ll see as everyone else is watching the game.