Deflategate: Capitalism on the Gridiron

For those who are mercifully unaware of the latest kerfuffle within the NFL, here is an unmerciful summary of the now infamous “Deflategate.”

Deflategate refers to a conspiracy allegedly enabled by Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady involving a scheming deflation of game balls. Emerging after the Patriot’s victory in the 2015 American Football Conference (AFC) Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts, the accusation fingers locker-room attendants who supposedly deflated game balls to give the Patriots’ passing game an unfair advantage. Following an investigation initiated by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, all involved were found complicit. The League announced that it would suspend Brady for the first four games of the 2015 regular season. Furthermore, The League fined the Patriots one million dollars and lost treasured draft picks. Brady and the Patriots complained; thereupon Goodell dutifully ordered an internal review that upheld the initial ruling.

The accused remaining dissatisfied, the matter landed in Federal court and was heard by Judge Richard M. Berman. Berman publicly and repeatedly warned Goodell that he disliked the Commissioner’s investigations, the findings and the punishment. He continually asked Goodell to seek a resolution. Upon ignoring Berman warnings, Goodell’s ruling was quickly and dismissively vacated. Berman explained that “…the requisites of fairness and due process were missing from the process leading to the settlement.” This decision exposed the “investigation” as an inquisition and the flawed internal appeal process as an arrogant, self-serving fraud. Seeking a different outcome by pursuing a failed and humiliating game plan, Goodell, at this writing, is appealing the appeal of the review of the investigation. 2015 may be a very long football season.

Sitting in the heart of the Nutmeg State, sipping on a cold Miller High Life and watching the last New England Patriots pre-season game gently warms this Yankee’s heart. The glow of the Patriot’s 2014 Super Bowl victory feeds an anticipated repeat performance in Super Bowl 50. That achievement would be especially gratifying given that humans enjoy celebrating decade numbers, and because Goodell’s self-inflicted slobber knocker will be forever memorialized in football history with the Nixonian moniker “Deflategate.”

Predictably, the corporate media now exploits Goodell’s misfortune. Each “analysis” by Hal of Fame “pundits” comes couched in a stimulating commodified landscape of gas-guzzling SUVs, data-guzzling iPhones and the happiness offered by guzzling Rocky-Mountain beer. The parasitic metabolism of capitalism becomes a public cannibalization of one capitalist by another.

Socialists might wonder why they should care. After all, players make gazillions of dollars, owners make gazillions-plus of dollars and Nike makes gazillions squared. A future Sports Illustrated centerfold shake her liberated assets, while the NFL celebrates post-sexist America by hiring female coaches and officials. Owners, like the Viking’s Zygi Wilf, leverage capital mobility to terrorize the citizens of cities with NFL franchises and extort diminishing tax dollars to build gleaming post-modern cathedrals that enshrine their “job-creating” legacy.

Understandably, some socialists might dismiss the matter as a tempest in a billion-dollar stadium. But other socialists might care. This is because Karl Marx identifies the troubling dialectical playbook of capital that lies beneath the talk of deflated balls and Brady’s alleged wink-wink, nod-nod complicity. Erik Olin Wright, Andrew Levine and Elliot Sober in their insightful book Reconstructing Marx, remind us that Marx

“…argues that the overall course of human history can be divided into a series of distinct epochs, each characterized by a distinctive set of relations of ownership and control of productive resources, social relations of production. These relations of production explain critical properties of the society’s political and ideological, its superstructure, and are themselves explained by the level of development of the society’s technology and overall organization of the productive process, its forces of production.(Reconstructing Marx, New York, Verso, 1992, p. 13.)

Marx’s explanation of the mechanics and evolution of capitalism provides a basis for a deeper, class understanding of Deflategate. Capitalists (read “owners”) own the means of production (read “franchises”) and since they do, workers (read “players”) are dependent upon them for their sustenance, however opulent. When it comes to the NFL, the means of production are manifest in such things as League franchises, stadiums and broadcasting rights. Capitalists need labor to extract surplus value that accumulates as a vast private wealth.  This wealth, combined with access to a worldwide audience provided by the cutting-edge technology of broadcasting giants like ESPN, headquartered in Bristol Connecticut, purchases the productive means required to create the product called “professional football,” the NFL.

However, the special character of this product reveals Goodell’s unhealed Achilles Heel. It is not just football itself that attracts customers. It is football played by the best players capital can buy. To doubt this is to ignore the true magic of “fantasy football.” Recalling the 2012 NFL referee lockout should silence any questions about how the quality of play establishes the use value of professional football. That kerfuffle brought fans to stadiums across the nation wearing shopping bags over their heads in protest over the abysmal officiating of inexperienced backups. “Variable” capital, that capital that purchases players, coaches and officials. It packs stadiums and sports bars. It sells tee shirts and Miller High Life, and creates new generations of fans that spring from the dream-filled minds of our children. While players are workers, they exercise an advantage inaccessible to those slinging hash at McDonald’s or slinging back-to-school merchandise at Wal-Mart. In football, the players are the product. In the inhuman void of Wal-Mart, no one hears the screams of a checkout person being demeaned by her supervisor. In the NFL, when a Commissioner attacks a player, fans holds their breath, and the player’s union holds the ball.

Are players paid unconscionable salaries? Maybe. Do most owners really care about the personal and social impacts of commodified sports? Maybe. Is football in the end just a capitalist passion play about rugged masculine superheroes and American pie? Perhaps. Nevertheless, Marx’s description of the relationship between social relations and social forces of production shows a process that occurs regardless of worker’s compensation. Marx anticipates a struggle by workers against capital’s exploitive and abusive ideological superstructure, that results from exacerbating situations of production. That theater will continue whether in front of hot griddles at McDonald’s or under the unflinching cameras of Gillette Stadium.

Are you ready for some football?


J. Richard Marra

lives in Connecticut. He received his Doctoral degree from Cornell University in 1977, majoring in Musical Composition and the History of Music Theory. While on the Faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, he completed graduate work at Johns Hopkins University, majoring in the Philosophy of Science. He is a member of the Socialist Party USA, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Philosophy of Science Association. His articles have also appeared on the websites of the Secular Buddhist Association and The Hampton Institute. He is a 2014 recipient of the SPUSA's Eugene V. Debs Award. To read other essays by J. Richard Marra, please visit

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