My name is Stephanie Stradley. I'm 51. I cannot believe that. I am a Houston-based lawyer and I also write about football, which is fun, and other things.
When I say the words "videogame industry" or just mention videogames, what does that conjure up in your head or what your awareness of them?
Well, I mean, my father was in the Air Force, and he has always been an early adopter of any kind of technology, whether it was audio technology, cameras, computers, and videogames. So, I remember very distinctly seeing Pong -- like, I didn't really think of things as the "videogame industry." That was just something that came about.
So, I remember things from Pong. I remember videogames from computers from back in the day where you had to upload your game via a cassette tape. So, that's how far back I go with this. [Laughs.]
So, I don't really think of it as "the industry," I just think of it as, "This is fun stuff I've done pretty much my whole life." From the very get-go. I mean, I did more videogames stuff personally when I was younger and had more time.
Now, my kids are into it, so my awareness of it? It's weird to me, like, one of my kids is very much into retro gaming. And I'm like, "Why would you want that? Technology is so much better now!" [Laughs.]
Well, "retro" meaning what? Because that can mean any number of things to the younger generation.
Well, like the old Nintendo boxes and GameCubes. Like, I had my brother over and we were playing some retro Nintendo and I was like, "Oh yeah! I still remember how to beat this guy in Mike Tyson!" [Laughs.]
Yeah, so, it goes way back. I mean, I think -- for me, it's interesting in that like for my kids, a lot of my understanding of sports evolved through videogames because those made a lot of sense to do. Those were the easiest translated things to the gaming platform. Like, I learned a lot of the rules of sports through playing videogames. I mean, just organically. It wasn't something that I really thought of. Like, I watched sports on TV, played videogames, and so Pong was the first game. Pong was the first game.
There must be something missing in my brain because many years ago as a freelancer I took an assignment reviewing a football videogame. You just reminded me of this. I remember having to ask a couple of friends and studying Wikipedia just trying to understand, like, "How does this game work?" I just couldn't understand it in the ways that I understood baseball and basketball growing up.
Some of -- it's interesting to see the evolution of the football games because back in the day anybody could play them. They were not very complicated. They were not very technical.
And now -- it's funny because my kids are like, "Mom, you explained how this-and-such and this-and-such happened in football, but I understand it so much better now that I played Madden." [Laughs.]
It sounds like you said you mostly put videogames down because you got busy. But as your kids continue to play and you hear about them from your kids, what seems to have changed or gotten really important in videogames either in the way they present themselves or the way you hear your kids talk about them?
Well, I still play with them some, although it's really disappointing because I don't play enough to be good and I'm competitive enough that I hate being the worst person playing the game. I think the last game that I really crushed them in was -- oh, goodness. It was a Wii game involving Nerf shooting. I was pretty good at that game. [Laughs.]
I think the last time that personally I was very into games was GoldenEye.
One Thanksgiving, where I had a lot of time, the oven wasn't cooking correctly at my parent's house and so everybody watched me get to the very end of GoldenEye and we ate turkey dinner at 10 o'clock at night. [Laughs.]
But really, I think the biggest difference to me in just the transition of games is -- I played some of the ones you played on computers and stuff. But I think the biggest transition is it used to be you could just pick up a game and be pretty decent and have a fun time. And now there's kind of a bifurcated thing where there's these really visually incredible games but you have to get very into them to get all the benefit of playing those games.
And then there's the party games, where you can just pick it up and people are just playing. So, it's gotten very bifurcated that way.
I tend to play more of those than I play the ones where you have to quit your job and have no life. [Laughs.]
Maybe you remember, Trevor Noah had tweeted before he took over at The Daily Show that videogames should rename their difficulties: part-time job, full-time job, and unemployed.
Yes. Yes. [Laughs.]
But, I mean, it blows me away just watching my kids play the games and seeing how much detail is in them. When I tell them the olden time stories, you know, "Hey, I used to play this game where we would bomb Russia and there weren't any visuals. It was just sitting in front of a computer terminal looking at words and telling the computer how you wanted to bomb Russia and in the end, you died." That was the game. I don't even remember what it was called. But they're like, "Really mom?" I'm like, "Yeah!"
But then again, I also remember -- I was in charge of setting up the computers at the legal department that I was working in because everybody was older than me and I knew about computers.
And so I was at some conference and they were like, "Yeah, and the future of data is gonna be this thing called 'the internet.'" And they put on this screen and they showed us what the internet looked like and I'm like, "This is garbage! This is never gonna catch on! This is slow and dumb-looking! This is the dumbest thing!" Yeah.
Before commercial browsers, the internet looked like garbage and it was really, really slow. And that's not even that long ago!
No! Not really.
It makes it kind of baffling to think of what 10 years in the future, 20 years in the future are gonna look like. We're just gonna have, like, electrodes in our head I guess.
We're gonna be in our nutrient huts with just a node in the back of our heads, but we'll still be playing that game where we blow up Russia.
Yes, yes. [Laughs.] We're gonna be brains in a vat.
[Laughs.] So, but it sounds like your kids play more videogames than you do. Do you miss them? Do you feel like you are mourning the loss of something in only playing them here and there or watching over someone else's shoulder?
So many of the best videogames involve a lot of time to get into them. As a grown-ass adult with responsibilities, I just don't have the time to devote to an entire video game world, though just watching casually, it looks like fun and the graphics these days are amazing. I liked the games I played back in the day because I had no idea I was missing anything. And perhaps it made it easier to stay on task with my school work because they weren't as immersive. I still like to play games with my kids from time to time, but it is more of the party-type games that you don't have to fully commit to in order to be decent enough to play them and win. Ultimately, I appreciate those people who are all-in on videogames and I had times in my life I could do that but where I am now in my life, I like to be involved with lots of interests.
Well, so, just to bridge the two topics here and because I'm always curious how the game industry and topics related to it come across: What did you make of my reaching out of wanting to talk about sports and Deflategate and compare that to videogames but not literally talking about videogames?
Eh, I guess a lot of different things. I think part of it is just the way that people take in information through their filters these days.
Like, I grew up in a time where the world wasn't divided up into culture wars. There's just -- it was just 1s and 0s. There's truth and there's not truth and then there's stuff in the middle that's kind of gray. But now it seems like the 1s and 0s are all arranged in some sort of culture-war way, where it kind of forced that direction. [Sighs.] Having a legal background, I'm just interested in what the truth is wherever you can find it.
Sometimes that's difficult because -- I've worked with a lot of investigation things trying to find out the truth. In a lot of my writing on football is about trying to find the truth of things.
I think just because of human nature, it's really hard to find the God's-eye truth in something. You know, there's God that sees everything and then there's people that process the world through filters because we have to. Like, if human beings did not have filters to the way that they saw the world, you would be overwhelmed with data. And so, at least in modern times, it seems like everything's filtered. Like, I never really thought of videogames as a guy thing or girl thing. I just thought, "Hey, this is a fun thing to do." [Laughs.] It just wasn't something that I even thought about.
I kind of set myself apart from these culture-war things because I'm like, "I just want to know what the truth is. I just want people to be decent people and be cool together."
[Laughs.] This was a great interview. Thank you for your time.
I ask because I would agree with you and I have spent most of my career not exclusively focusing on videogames. It's one of many things that I've written about. With this, I'm doing a deeper dive in trying to understand these lenses that you talked about, and trying to erode them and make them at least from the videogame side not have people continue to think what many already think.
In other words, because it's been so insular that there are so many pundits and experts and people in videogames who think videogames are unlike anything else in the world. Which, of course, is not true.
And so, with this and with you, there's a lot of stuff that comes to mind. I guess a really good place to start with digging into Deflategate is -- maybe you already said this with your questing for truth, but what was it about Deflategate that activated your sense of justice beyond your being a lawyer?
As I understand it, and I Googled around, you were one of the first people outside of Boston to step in and write about this and talk about this when established sports writers were holding off.
Sure. Well, I think part of it is that filter thing we were talking about. There's so much things going on in the world that nobody can be an expert in everything. Yeah.
Like, if there is a topic in the world, there is somebody who has specialized knowledge about that topic. I actually started writing about NFL discipline things in 2006. [Laughs.] So, it's been a while. I kind of know the context of things.
Back then, I wrote for what was a great sports blog called AOL FanHouse. At the time, they were looking for a Texans writer and I had a Texans blog and there weren't very many Texan blogs because at the time the Texans were coming off a 2 and 14 season. So, that's not a very enjoyable thing to write about. [Laughs.] But I was writing about it because I was interested. They were rebuilding the team. So, these people reached out to me and said, "Hey, we have this blog. Will you write about it?" Well, at the time, I hadn't told anybody that I was a lawyer. Like, they had no idea. I'm not somebody that goes around, "I'm a lawyer! Listen to me!" Like, who cares? Especially when you're talking about football.
But then it became more relevant because a lot of NFL things were overlapping with legal things. I was seeing a lot of people struggle with writing those things. And so, eventually, I volunteered to my editors that, "Hey, I'm a lawyer and I know about these things and I could write something specific to this." I think the first thing that really caught on, thinking back on it, was when I wrote about a really obscure point in Spygate.
At the time --
But you were early to write about that as well, too, am I right?
Yeah, yeah, I wrote about Spygate because there was a question about Patriots Assistant Matt Walsh, who wouldn't say what he knew because he was afraid of being sued.
There was a question about whether he could spill the beans, if he got indemnified against liability. There was a hold-up between the NFL and his lawyers and everybody else, why they couldn't get a contract to get him to start talking.
“Indemnification” is a topic that a lot of sports fans know nothing about, and I know about it, wrote a law review article about the topic and have lectured about it, so I could help non-lawyers with it. I ended up seeing some of the documents involved and was quoted in the New York Times about it.
And so, I explained everything in words that -- like, I really enjoy explaining legal things so that non-legal people can understand them because, really, that's what good lawyers do anyway with their clients. So, I was just doing it for the world at large. It kind of caught on where I started helping journalists out, learning what these things were because I had a background in that area. And then, it kept on having all these discipline issues come up with the NFL, everything from the allegations against Ben Roethlisberger, which obviously was a big thing, and there was an evolution on how the NFL was dealing with off-the-field things. Both on- and off-the-field things. And so, fans are just like, "Hey, I'm trying to figure out what's gonna happen. I'm trying to figure out if my favorite player is gonna play. What's the story on this?"
And so I would explain what the story is, but it didn't really get completely out of hand, I think, until Bountygate. And Bountygate was after the new CBA was finalized, which really didn't change any of the discipline stuff substantially. But Roger Goodell's use of power changed after that and when I started looking into that particular case, I was disturbed by how it was being reported generally and just the fairness involved.
How do you mean "disturbed?" Like, by the approach or what was omitted?
Well, like, how the investigation was done, what the procedures were done, and ultimately, like, if you have any kind of system of adjudication and if you're doing it for the integrity of the game, you want a system that if somebody is truly innocent of the charges against them, there is a mechanism for proving that.
When I started looking through some of the information they had in terms of their investigations, I'm like, "This doesn't say what it says it says!" [Laughs.] You know, instead of suspending these people, wouldn't it be better to have warned them ahead of time that what they were doing was not right? A lot of this was lead by the defensive coordinator using mean words that are sometimes used by coaches to motivate their players. And so, you know, some of these decisions were reputationally damaging. At least one of the people in Bountygate never got another job again and it turned out that the allegations that were originally alleged against him never happened. It was proven definitively that it didn't happen.
So, by the time that Deflategate happened, I had a healthy skepticism of whether these investigations were more for PR versus actual integrity. And because of my background, knowing about football and knowing legal things, I'm in a real specialized category of people that just knows about it. And in the modern world, if you know something and can articulate it in a way where people understand it, people will find you.
[Laughs.] Yes, to celebrate or to bring out the pitchforks and torches.
[Laughs.] Actually, I have to say, through the whole experience of Deflategate, I really didn't get much blowback.
Interesting. I'm sure you knew I was going to ask what the reaction was, yeah.
No, I didn't get very much blowback because, I think -- first of all, it's very difficult to argue against somebody who knows more about that subject than you do.
[Laughs.] I guess.
[Laughs.] It's really difficult to discuss law with me or football with me if you've never been in a locker room and you're not a lawyer.
I would agree with you, but I'm saying the people who try to argue with me, that doesn't seem to be the dynamic. They always just know better, and they keep arguing even though I’m not interested in arguing.
I'm just saying as a general rule.
I guess the other thing is is even people whose initial contact with me is not necessarily the most respectful, my point of view is always to treat people with basic human decency and respect.
That there's no way I can ask for that from other people who are strangers unless I'm willing to offer it myself. The other part for me is I have a rule that I just work with my clients on, which is this: When you're dealing with situations that are inherently emotional and where people take sides, that's when you have to be very precise with your language as far as not using emotionally charged words.
So, when people get very, very emotional, there's no benefit to name calling because when you name call, nobody's gonna listen to your point. They're just gonna listen to you name calling.
Also, in this case, it also probably helped in that my point of view with this is -- I figured, "Oh my goodness, they're bringing this against Tom Brady and they hired this law firm to investigate." My general rooting interest is for the Houston Texans. The Patriots are in the same division, and so it's in my own personal interests for them to throw the book at Tom Brady. Although, I will say in a general sense, I prefer for the best players to be on the field unless there's a big reason not to, like if they murdered somebody or something.
What was the most absurd or dishonest thing about the whole Deflategate saga?
[Sighs.] I guess it goes two different ways. [Pause.] I think it's a great illustration of how stories get out of control in that people's first opinion of something -- it's the irrational primacy effect. A person's first opinion of something tends to stay with them even if they're given evidence directly contrary to that. And that's something that lawyers have to fight against when they're in front of jurors, because if jurors get a particular impression of something, it's very difficult to overcome that original impression.
There's a lot of techniques that people use to be able to keep people having an open mind.
And so, I try -- when I analyze things, I try to take the names off of things and put myself not as somebody who has a particular bias one way or another. Because, you know, I do have the bias thinking that the NFL doesn't necessarily do justice very well because they're better at sports things than they are at justice things.
That is a bias that I know that I have. But that doesn't mean future situations are going to be exactly at the same. So, when I'm looking at something, whether it's this situation or a football analysis, I try to take the names off of things and just talk about them almost like algebra. Like, Hall of Fame Player A is accused of this. What is the evidence? And so when people are saying, "Well, he looked really guilty in his presser afterwards," I'm like, "Really? He just looks like somebody who was going, 'WTF?'" [Laughs.]
I really didn't see it as evidence one way or another. Like, you can read different things into it if you're inclined to have a bias towards something, but I didn't really see it as something one way or another.
And so then I was just waiting for the evidence, which was supposed to come out in a couple weeks and it came out after a pretty long time. And then when I read the report, there were enough things in it -- like, there's the irrational primacy effect, which kind of set the media reaction to the original situation. You know, it was in the playoffs, so it was high-profile. There were wrong leaks propagated by somebody from the NFL office that were not corrected. So, there was a wrong impression of the whole situation from the beginning that tended to reinforce people's negative impression of the situation. And, you know, of course the Patriots have a particular reputation because of years of winning and because people question what they do for a variety of reasons.
But then, I think the biggest issue is when the actual Deflategate report came out, it was written from a perspective that was overwhelmingly one-sided for the evidence that they really didn't have. And so, you're like, "Okay, what would be the motivation to write something from that perspective?" I think it was basically because they wanted to do discipline and if you want the discipline to be upheld, you have to have a report that's written not from the perspective of, "Here's the truth, the pluses and minuses," but, rather, "Here is an advocacy piece." And the reason I knew it was an advocacy piece is there were components of the report that if you gave them higher scrutiny would look like BS.
And, you know, it wasn't in a trial type of setting. It was just, "I'm the factfinder and the judge and this is what I think." But it was written in just such a -- I wanted a report that got him dead to rights, if they were gonna take him off the field and cost him money. And this is just like, "Really? You spent millions of dollars on this report and this is your evidence? This evidence is a joke."
And I knew that it was a joke because of my specialized background doing actual investigations. And also, the types of investigations where you're trying to find information but you also know that it's going to be subject to future litigation, which is a different type of investigation than just looking for the truth.
Well, so, you mentioned bias and from what I understand, there's a history of some bias against the Patriots with things. You mentioned Spygate. And so, this is a word I've already heard you use a few times: “integrity.” It’s not unique to football in sports, as I know it’s used in sumo wrestling, for example. Integrity and purity. They’re good masks for corruption in that it discourages inquiry.
In videogames, often times when you criticize the industry or the things that happen in it, the counter-argument is, "Well, this is a passion industry and if you're passionate enough those things shouldn't bother or hinder you."
I guess I'm curious, if integrity is the focus, then why has the conversation shifted to tarnishing the Patriots rather than trying to emulate them and the ways they outsmart competition or the ways that they are clever?
Well, I think part of it is just the whole notion of sport, that if you -- I mean, the NFL talks about having integrity in the sport and, yes, that's important for a sport to have integrity. Where people believe the games are not fixed. If the games are fixed, you might as well just acknowledge it and say, "Hey, this is wrestling."
And there's a lot of money involved because of betting, because of fantasy football and daily fantasy sports. There's so much money involved that is based on this being a sport where the outcome is not predetermined. There's all sorts of NFL rules and then there's the in-between rules, like, "Okay, this is not a specific rule or it's not a point of emphasis. Is this a rule?" And so, the things that the Patriots have sometimes gotten in trouble with is looking at what the actual rules are and figuring out, "Okay, what can we do within the rules that is right up to the edge of the rules?"
And Spygate, in my opinion, from what the public information tends to suggest -- Spygate wasn't as bad as what the original reports were or the eventual reaction to it was.
But teams have had enough situations where they question how the Patriots do things that it sometimes seen as ghosts. I mean, it's kind of like the old Celtics. At some point, when people think that they're being tricked, that can get more in their minds than actual tricks.
Right. But then it can turn into a prejudice, can't it?
Well, it can. Every team inevitably gets reputations and that's just how things are.
It's kind of tribal of: What do you value in your team? I mean, some people would say that the Patriots push the limits. There is that point of view that if you're not cheating, you're not trying. There's the point of view where the Patriots thematically are, from the perspective of, "Do your job and it doesn't matter who the players are, we're gonna find a way to win." There is a lot to be said for people to do their job and to work together as a team.
Well, I mean, do you think part of it is -- is it just things like this, where, "You filmed in the wrong place. You put slightly less air in the football." You said it was a PR campaign. Do you think it's trying to prevent deeper looks at things? To prevent the risk of exposing how, maybe, everyone else is bending the rules?
Well, I think part of it is setting an example. That it doesn't matter who you are, rules matter.
Of course, nobody had really paid much attention to the air pressure in balls before that. It was embarrassing to the league where there's a leak that comes out right away saying, "The Patriots cheated! They let air out of balls." And part of it is just a historical -- like, a lot of Deflategate is just an accident.
Like, how information came out. For example, what we learned after the fact was the NFL had no idea -- no idea at all -- that when you play football in cold weather, the balls deflate. Like, they had no idea. I'm guessing some people within the NFL may have known that, but they had no idea. They came into this with the presumption that this could not be explained by natural causes.
And then originally, there was a leak from inside the league offices that said, "These are the numbers and they're really low." And if you try to do the math based on the leaked information, it looks really bad for the Patriots.
All of that information was wrong, right?
And the Patriots knew that right away and said, "Hey look, NFL!"
We know this because 'cause we read letters after the fact.
"Hey, look! Your information that was leaked was wrong. Could you please correct this. This hurts our reputation."
And the league response was, "Hey, we can't respond to every rumor."
Which they sometimes do.
"We can't respond to every rumor. This will be fixed when the Wells report is done."
So, for months and months, this wrong information was out there and the Patriots were right. It did make people think a certain thing. And then when the Wells report came out correcting the wrong information, the conclusion of it was so overwhelming and against Brady, the fact that the original information was absolutely incorrect was lost in the tsunami of headlines that said Tom Brady is a cheater.
Do you think that that putting off responding, was that an extra way of disciplining the team and letting media or fans or other people put more heat on them?
I don't -- I don't want to impugn anybody's motive. I mean, it's not unusual to say, "Hey, look. We're not gonna respond to every rumor and this is all gonna get resolved."
But obviously people were going to have opinions about it and make them heard.
I mean, modern society is all about everybody having opinions whether they have information or not. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] I've heard about this.
Well, you know what's amazing to me is sometimes I'll be doing a radio interview with somebody about some football thing and somebody will ask me something and I'll always go, "I really don't have an opinion on that.”
They're like, "What?" [Laughs.]
I'm like, "Yeah, you know, there is actual value of knowing what you don't know."
This is true. You know what sentence I never see online? "I'll give them the benefit of the doubt."
Do you remember that sentence?
And to be clear, I'm not trying to goad or bait you into stating someone's motives.
Thank you for reminding me I am interviewing a lawyer.
[Laughs.] But I think there's stuff like this and there's also stuff where it's less surprising to allege. Like, links with the NFL and concussions and brain injuries and the ways the NFL has tried to cover that up. So why do fans believe the NFL is telling the truth about anything?
I think that's kind of where we've come to.
The NFL is extraordinarily popular. Like videogames are.
It took 40 minutes but, yes, this is why I reached out to you.
Yeah. And it's difficult -- from a position of power, there becomes a natural arrogance. Also, when there's so much money involved, criticism can be very threatening to the money, to the existence of something. So -- and it's just natural to have a PR and a legal element trying to protect their interests because that's what they're supposed to do.
With the NFL in particular, it's an existential threat to them to say, "What happens if the science says there is no safe football? That football in and of itself is a dangerous activity that will not only hurt these people, but if your kids play it at a young age, it will hurt them too even if they have no opportunity to make money off it.
[Sighs.] And so, it's kind of like the whole -- how do you critique something to make it better if the biggest conclusions might just threaten the whole thing? And people have different points of view on the best way of dealing with those things. Some people, when confronted with that go, "You know, these are really difficult questions that are worth investigating." Acknowledging the difficulty of it.
But there's been a tradition in a lot of industries just to say -- just to kind of minimize and take any kind of criticism as a threat instead of as an opportunity to make something a new thing that is a better thing for everybody.
But the money is so big it's really hard to have those conversations, especially when there are some people who go, "You know what? Society would be better without football." And that's a very threatening point of view.
So, it's hard to have very honest conversations about these things in an environment where people are afraid and when there's so much money and people are so vested.
Clearly, there's no such thing as a purely honest industry. But do you think -- but maybe that is the question here. What if the science says there might not be a safe football? Is there such a thing as an industry that is not dishonest?
I mean, do you think --
Oh, yeah! I mean, there's a whole bunch of different approaches that businesses take to both their legal issues and their PR issues. Like, the way that, for example, just in the sports area: The way that the NFL deals with those issues is very different than the way that the NBA deals with some of those issues.
I mean, there's a number of different ways to handle things. There are some people who have observed that even though Roger Goodell looks like a lawyer -- I guess, stereotypically -- he is not one. And for a multi-billion dollar industry that has had many legal issues, that -- [Sighs.] That makes it difficult to manage that. Like, the NFL's approach has been typically to not be afraid of any kind of litigation and to use their power as much as they can.
Not every place takes that approach. Some places take the approach that part of what people like about a sport is when that sport is honest with them about some of the issues that face that sport.
But, I mean, I think there's a multitude of approaches that legal departments and PR people can take to things. It's just a question of personal preference and leadership from the top.
We used to overthrow kings. We would overtake people who we felt weren't representing our best interests or were being dishonest. Why have we gotten so bad at overturning billionaires or people who are in those positions when we can tell they're clearly doing unethical things? I'm not necessarily or only talking about the NFL --
But it's not necessarily clear. I mean, the things that the NFL is facing are difficult issues.
I mean, they're difficult issues. There's no one way to deal with some of them. Whether we're talking government or anything that you're a fan of, sometimes you're faced with a lot of better bad choices and you have to make a choice out of a lot of not great options, and what do you choose? The other part of it is any industry is not a monolith. Even though I might say, "The NFL does this and the NBA does this and the media does this," there's so many different individuals that -- they all have their own motivations that they see in their heart as being the best thing, because people being people have different life experiences and different things that they can bring to bear.
So, I get so uncomfortable with the whole idea of this monolithic, "The media is this and the government is this."
It's really -- like, if you were trying to effectuate change or you were trying to maintain a business, it's really hard to get everybody on the same page as to what is the right thing to do when in most circumstances there is no right one thing to do. That there's this kind of leadership model of what you find valuable for whatever your industry is or your country is or whatever, and then trying to fill in the details of what that's entailed.
And what I hope for in the future is we have so many of these issues in all walks of life where we look at the differences between people. And to me, it's always easier whether it's formulating an article or an argument for something, is to find those areas that we agree on and then work from there.
Right. Rather than just try to build --
Yeah. And in just about every situation, you can find those joint values and joint areas of agreement, and then you work out from that because really as I go back to it, it's like, if everybody was just kinda cool to each other, things would be great!
They could be great! Everybody, just be cool!
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those are some really great goals. Now, it's the details of how we get to that so that it works for everybody is the hard part.
This is a different sort of area, but I'd be curious to hear you talk about why you think the NFL gave up its non-profit status.
Well, it looked bad. [Laughs.]
I think that's the primary reason. I mean, it's really hard. [Pause.] If you just look at it, like, take the names off everything and you just say, "Okay, yes. People like this so much that everybody's taxpayer money should be spent helping these billionaires out." I mean, that sounds kinda dumb, doesn't it?
So, at least from a PR perspective they realized that that's an issue. And maybe they don't realize it enough. I know that Mark Cuban has talked about that in the past, just this hubris of the NFL. Pushing things through and the way that they saturate things that at some point, people may go, "Hey, I have other things I'd rather do."
Kind of the corresponding thing is when people have things like videogames and the internet and all sorts of things and other interests, do they become the same kind of sports fans as the generation before them? When they have other options? I mean, that's always been the issue with some sports cities where people will go, "Oh, will this such-and-such sport do well here? There's so many different things to do here. Will people show up to these games?"
And so, they have their own challenges trying to make their sport something popular and make it so that it's compelling to go in person.
I know you mentioned you didn't get much of the typical negative internet reaction to the stuff that you've written. Do you ever run into that as a fan of the sport? I know that until very recently there wasn't much that women could buy as far as legit official apparel that wasn't --
-- boys' sizes or pink. And I know that recently there was finally a female sideline reporter. Obviously it's not a shock to allege that women -- like you said before we started, the attitude that videogames were only for certain types of people and that football had the same thing. Do you run into vestiges of that old way of thinking still?
Yeah, it's interesting to me. I mean, if you look at the statistics, I'll say depending on who you look at, like, 45 percent of all football fans are women. There have been women involved in levels of football for a long time. Amy Trask just wrote a book about her relationship with the Raiders, helping Al Davis run the Raiders for many years. In the sports field in general, it's one thing to be a fan of a team. It's another thing to do a damn fool thing like I've done, which is write about football.
It's not a very sensible thing to do. I enjoy it. I've had a lot of fun with it. I'll keep doing it until I'm not having fun with it. But it's not very sensible to call a sports talk station and be on hold and go, "Hey, everybody, this is what I think about this football team!" I mean, that's a really not a smart use of your time. [Laughs.] Most people have better things to do with their lives.
But generally speaking, as a public person writing about football, I've been doing this -- I mean, I've been a football fan my whole life since I had sentient thought. But most of the blowback I get is not from fans. Most of the blowback that I've gotten has been from media sources, actually.
And not that much.
You mean, like, journalists?
Journalists, yeah. [Pause.] You know, I've had a few people that go, "Why should we listen to this lady on sports?" And I go, "Don't listen to me. I don't care." [Laughs.] I don't know why. If you have a problem with what I'm saying, say what that is. I don't see how it's germane that I have lady parts as to what my opinion is on something. And I've had some people who have been very, very supportive. I mean, extraordinarily supportive. I mean, I've not had a lot of the very, very negative things said.
And I feel fortunate that way. But I think part of it is that I really do try to from things from a perspective that's fair. That I'm looking for truth and not telling people, "This is how it definitely is." Because, really, I'm interested in what people have to say about things because -- what's fascinating to me is that millions of people can see the same football game and see completely different things in it. Completely. To get a fuller view of things, you have to figure out what filters to think about to see what's really going on. I mean, if it was easy, everything would be linear here, which is not possible.
But, for example, the draft happens every single year. These people are supposedly experts in this field and even they get it wrong. So, I mean -- to me it's just kind of interesting, listening to other people, seeing what they have to say about things, and then taking the good of what people say and just kind of discarding the rest of it.
And really, as it relates to the way people react to you, I mean, I'm myself. That's -- like, "You're a lady writer." Well, yeah. Whatever. [Laughs.] I know this.
But the way that people react to you has less to do with you because they don't know you as a person and has everything to do with them and their life experiences -- something you have no conception about when you're interacting with them. I have to say that the most interesting experience to me was back in the day, they didn't really have good moderation tools for blogs. And so, I had to approve every single comment on my blog before it went up at the Houston Chronicle. Every single one. I saw everything and I was supposed to approve all the comments unless they violated the terms of service, which is basically cuss words. People can say all sorts of things about you without using cuss words, so I saw all sorts of things.
But, I mean, I was pretty familiar with internet culture so I tried to use various ways to encourage good comments and blow off the comments that weren't worth paying attention to. But one of the commenters who just commented mean things because he was a Cowboys fan. He would just say stupid things and I would encourage people not to react to them because I didn't want my blog comments to kind of just get messed up. But it turned out that same person years later made a huge donation to a charitable cause that I was advocating. So, you just never know how things work out. [Laughs.]
And, actually, some of the harshest commenters I had in the early days of my blog ended up being the people that eventually evolved into being good commenters.
Maybe they donated to your cause because they wanted you to be too busy to write?
[Laughs.] I don't think so.
But I do think there are some people that just want to burn the world down and you really can't help those people. [Sighs.] But, you know, before I started writing I was aware of how message-board culture was and I had been a message-board moderator and if you actually meet some of the people that are the most difficult people online, some of them are kids and just don't know better. Some of them have some pretty serious mental difficulties that kind of inform their way of dealing with the world. I mean, everybody has humanity and just wants to express it to the world and if they can't get positive attention for what they're doing, sometimes it's negative attention.
Is there something in general when it comes to football and issues in the sport that you're surprised people don't talk more about?
[Pause.] I don't think it's a surprise, I think it's more of a just kind of a concern with it, that -- one of the main issues for the NFL is their dealings with players. Down the road, there's gonna be a new collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the players and it's hard to know what that's gonna look like when the players have such a lack of trust with ownership and specifically Roger Goodell because I think they feel burnt by how everything went on post-Bountygate. They don't trust the commissioner and it's really hard to come up with a contract when you don't trust the other side to abide by it. And really, the players are in a position where they shouldn't trust the owners to abide by it because they know that the owners have fought things in the past and, of course, will try to kind of out-wait them.
And so, there's a bunch of things that need to happen prior to that collective bargaining agreement that are currently affecting the sport. Like, for example, players know more about concussions these days and they have a concussion protocol. They're supposed to sit out. They sit out in a lot of times where in the past they would have played. Well, they haven't changed roster sizes, right? So, let's say you have two offensive linemen who are not going to play because they're going through the concussion protocol. Well, then you have backup linemen. Well, the more back-ups that you have playing in a game, the more likely the game's not going to be as good on the field.
And it's hard to keep a lot of these guys for years and years on the roster because you just have limited roster sizes. So, there's a lot of little things like that that are going to come up in the next CBA that are technical things but involve how good the players on the field -- you know, I don't think right now a lot of the play on the field looks very good.
Wider knowledge and care about concussions has changed since the last CBA. Game day rosters are still very limited but the NFL has put a greater emphasis on players getting out of games and staying out if they've been concussed. Limited roster sizes make that difficult. Increasing roster sizes can help with further development of players so when players go out due to injury, there are players who can step in and have been on a roster and know the system.
Also, the CBA limited off-season hitting time due to the view that it is hard on bodies and the greater understanding of how subconcussive hits can contribute to brain injuries. Some people view the limited hitting time as hurting the game play on the field. I'm not sure how they are going to strike a balance on this topic.
The biggest area of questionable play is quarterbacks. Some of the most consistently great quarterbacks are old and will be retiring. Some newer quarterbacks show promise but aren't consistently good year to year. How can the NFL use the structure of the league to help develop better quarterback play, especially given the changes between the college game and the pros?
I think one thing that may happen is more virtual reality training guides for quarterbacks specifically and players in general. I attended a VR session when I was at SXSW last year, and I think that is going to be the direction of a lot of coaching in the future. Visual training aids that reduce the wear on the body. The best teams are always looking for an edge, and the challenge is how to integrate VR tech into traditional coaching so that it isn't just an expensive new shiny object but something that actually provides an advantage. In the past, the VR tech was problematic because didn't simulate things accurately enough and could cause nausea due to lag. Anything that hurts the athletes is a no go. But now that the tech has improved, that's as not a big of an issue. VR tech is being used in both college and NFL football, but all the use cases aren't necessarily public as teams try to get competitive advantages over opponents.
I wanted to ask something about off the field, which I'm trying to figure out the exact parallel to videogames for, other than -- but I'm curious about fan awareness of things like that. Why are fans typically able to forgive things like domestic violence but they get mad about players wearing pink during breast-cancer awareness month? Why do some, or at least some vocal fans walk that particular line?
People have different points of view on different things. There's very few things that all fans agree on. Like, I try to write about football in a perspective of, "Does this benefit all fans?”
But I don't try to speak for fans because there's not very many things that fans all agree on.
Or people, yeah. Or, from year to year, what might benefit you one year would be really terrible for you a different year. The off-the-field thing is something that I think society in general struggles with in that sports is an entertainment enterprise and it's real bad to feel like you're having to root for somebody who you think is a bad person or has done bad things.
But on the other hand, let's say for example, domestic violence. If you look at domestic violence, if you look at any number of criminal acts, there are plenty of people in our society that have done the exact same thing but have not been caught doing it.
So, your question is, "Okay, do sports have a place to punish those people more than what the law does?" And if you do that -- let's say you do that. Do you want society in general to do that? Do you want everybody, when your employer finds out about what you've done that you lose your job? And in general, in society, when people have been accused of crimes, do you want those people never to be employable again? And what does that do for -- I don't know, people reporting those crimes? Is it good for society to have a class of people that are just not employable?
I mean, you have a lot of competing interests, including just kind of the general interest of, "Where do you draw the line between second chances and enabling?" I mean, these are difficult issues that there's no real glib answer for and are difficult issues for the law to sort through, much less people who don't have legal backgrounds. I mean, it's an issue that's happening with college campuses, with Title IX, and coming up with processes to look at sexual assaults, for example. That they're not necessarily something that's handled through the legal system, that's handled by colleges and then how well can colleges resolve some of those issues?
Touching back on integrity, I think of barring Sydney Seau from giving a speech at the Hall of Fame in her father's honor. I don't know. It is integrity that's important to football and the NFL, or is it a specific kind of integrity? Do you think it's actually something else? You've mentioned PR a few times and I guess PR is synonymous with a type of integrity, but it's a very curated one. It's certainly not the dictionary definition.
Sure. [Pause.] I think that goes back to the whole concept of different people having different points of view on how to handle things, because sometimes there's no one right way. Like, you're trying to do things the way that you've always done it but maybe that's not the right thing to do and sometimes there's time issues involved. Like, you have to make a decision very quickly based on imperfect information. Nowadays, "thought leaders" can be ahead of where companies are in terms of what knowledge they know and basing their opinions not necessarily on perfect knowledge themselves. So, there's just a lot more noise now and everybody has opinions on everything, but it makes it much more complex easily and from a PR perspective. I think ultimately, the touchstone of true integrity should be, "How do we make it such that where things are transparent that everybody knows that what happens on the field is not rigged?"
You know, that's what true integrity is and you work out from that concept. The further out from that concept that your PR gets or your legal stuff gets from that original goal is not a good thing. But that's not always an easy thing to dial in perfectly.
By further out, do you mean things off the field, or just the compromises that are made anywhere?
Yeah, well, or just -- okay. Everybody can agree, "Hey, you want what happens on the field to be the true representation of competitive sport." But then you have issues of, "Okay, well, what if so-and-so is cheating?" Okay, then how do you deal with the cheats? Well, what if you accuse so-and-so of cheating but they didn't really cheat and you take them off the field for four games. Well, that's not good. Well, what if there's a bunch of uncertainty about when that player is gonna be missing his four games and people are gonna be trading on insider information as to when that suspension might happen?
Once you get further away from your goal of, "We want a game with integrity," or even this: Your rules say that the penalty for this is X, but then you just make up a different penalty altogether. Like, you know, if for example, in Deflategate, let's assume that everything happened the way that it happened. That they basically cheated to take barely measurable amounts of air pressure out of each ball. Which makes no sense to me but -- whatever. And the rules say, "If you actually were the person who did it, there's a fine of this much." But then, at the end of the day they just go, "Well, you know, the commissioner has broad powers to do whatever he wants and it's four games, but we argue in court that it could be a whole year. We could've suspended him a whole year for having general knowledge that somebody else did this."
Okay, that's difficult because if you have the rules, the rules say this, but you have one guy that says, "I feel like suspending for you a year." Is that integrity? Does that look more like it's rigged or does that look like something that was necessary? Because, you know, if before all this somebody said, "Hey guys, ball pressure is really important to us and guarding the balls is really important to us, don't do that," I'm guessing nobody would do that.
Or even if all this came out and they go, "Okay, you're being fined," do you think people would do this anymore? No. Was it necessary to do this? Probably not. Does it maybe help them in the future when they're trying to negotiate against the Players Association and to try to get more money from them by trading maybe a more reasonable discipline? Maybe that's what it's about. Is that integrity? Not really. That's more about power and money. I mean, just hypothetically.
No, I'm with you. Let me ask you something less fuzzy and less thorny: What was the worst "ball" pun that you saw in a headline?
[Laughs.] Oh. Oh, goodness. You know, I don't know -- I mean, there were so many of them. The thing that kind of blew me away was how many marriage proposals I got. That was the weirdest, because, you know, there's plenty of people writing about this subject, but I was getting lots of marriage proposals and being told that if I went to Boston, I would not have to pay for food or drink. Which is strange. I've never been to Boston before, but it's I guess reassuring to know that I would have many suitors and food and drink, I guess. [Laughs.]
So I guess you're going to be moving, then? Is that what you're saying?
[Laughs.] No! No, no, no. I don't like cold weather.
Well, this last one is intentionally abstract. I usually ask people this about videogames, but it would be interesting to hear this contrasted against what you would say about a different type of game: What do you think football has accomplished?
[Exhales.] There are so many different ways to answer that. The way I prefer to answer it is looking at that thing at its best, and answering it that way. And for me, football -- especially NFL football -- has a unique way to bring a lot of different people together who have different backgrounds and different ages and different jobs and they all come together and they share something that has a shared meaning.
And like videogames, it's one of those things where if you're living a life -- you're on this planet for a certain period of time. The things that you look back at in your life that make you the happiest is those things that you're a fan of. So, whether people are fans of NFL or videogames or whatever, being a fan of something kind of brings you part of a larger community. And it's -- I mean, I think that's what humanity is all about. It's kind of a shared experience of an enjoyment of something. 'Cause life is meant to be enjoyed. Don't just hurt yourself or other people.