Credibility and Masters of the Universe

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I said last week that I didn’t care about deflate-gate and I mostly don’t. But I am interested in what passes for credible and respectable. So, a few words about Patriots’ owner Bob Kraft’s decision to go on the offensive in defense of his coach and quarterback. As a preface, we should note that Kraft’s assertion – that if the NFL finds no wrong-doing, it should apologize – could itself be subject to goal-post shifting. There are now unconfirmed reports that the NFL has a “person of interest” in the form of a New England Patriots’ locker room attendant, who may or may not have been seen in possession of the balls before kickoff of the AFC championship game. If it turns out that this individual is guilty of something, but insists that neither Brady nor Belichick knew anything about his chicanery, will Kraft still deem that a vindication of the organization? Stay tuned.

On the larger question, though, while I have no idea what Bob Kraft actually believes or doesn’t believe, I do know this – people in positions of power lie all the time. It’s a truism, yes. But one that media of all stripes struggle mightily to integrate into their understanding of how the world works. Elite journalists and pundits tend to be cynics in the abstract and entirely gullible once they’ve spent five minutes being stroked by one of the masters-of-the-universe. Bob Kraft may be putting his own credibility on the line in going to bat for Belichick and Brady. But maybe he also knows that they’ve given themselves sufficient plausible deniability that no investigation will uncover anything damning about either one of them. If you ask me whether Brady could tell the balls he was throwing were underinflated, I would say that there isn’t any question he did. Was he obligated thereby to say something to the refs about that? Not as far as I can tell. But did he lie when he said he had no idea what he was playing with? In my mind – very likely. For Kraft, what matters is defending the interests and legacy of his organization. Rightly or wrongly, this episode is being seen as a test of that. I think ordinary individuals have a hard time relating to how someone can stand in front of a sea of microphones and profess so adamantly to believe something he or she doesn’t really believe it. But Bob Kraft isn’t like you or me. This is the mistake that reporters make all the time – presuming that the motives and actions of unusually powerful people can be understood in the same terms as the behaviors of ordinary folks. Again, they may know this in the abstract. But once one of them has sat down for an interview with Kraft and been exposed to all of his charms and savvy, their own ability to judge what he’s capable of begins to falter.

It has long been known that the founding myth of baseball – that a young Abner Doubleday invented the game in a field in Cooperstown, New York in 1839 – is just that, a myth. It’s been thoroughly debunked by historians of every stripe. As Deadspin’s Tommy Craggs put it in 2010, the story has about as much credibility as the myth of Piltdown man. But you know who professes to believe the Doubleday hogwash? One Allan H. “Bud” Selig, the outgoing commissioner of baseball. Now, you might think that the commissioner of baseball, who somewhat hilariously has declared himself a “student of history,” would want to “get it right,” (as NFL officials themselves are so fond of saying), when it comes to the historical origins of baseball. But apparently you would be wrong. Baseball, the business and brand, has a lot invested in the Doubleday story, from the credibility of the original founding fathers who created the Doubleday myth, to the establishment and location of the Baseball Hall of Fame itself (it opened in 1939, on the supposed centennial of the game’s creation in, of course, Cooperstown, New York). And the Garden-of-Eden story gives the game a nice all-American origin, in contrast to the messy mutt-like reality of its actual evolution. So Bud Selig has happily and brazenly asserted, in the face of all the concrete evidence, that he believes Doubleday – who somehow managed not so much to mention “base ball” in any of the voluminous letters and papers he left – is the “father of baseball.” Selig is guilty, in my view, of more serious crimes than this, including his shameless insistence that he knew nothing of baseball’s PED problem until the moment he became a fierce crusader against it. But his position on Doubleday is a useful reminder that his “position” on baseball’s origins is not best understood as a heartfelt or sincere belief about the historical veracity of the Doubleday story. Instead, it’s a reflection of his understanding about what’s in the “best interests” of baseball. Kraft’s public statements should be viewed through a similar prism.

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