Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 31, 2014

Will Goodell’s Blunder Lead To Real Change?

Well that didn’t take long, now did it? Less than 72 hours after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell issued a new policy concerning the league’s handling of players guilty of domestic violence came the news that San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald was in the custody of the Santa Clara sheriff’s department, jailed on felony domestic violence charges. Of course charges are only that, and even 290 pound defensive tackles are due the presumption of innocence. After posting bail Sunday afternoon McDonald said “the truth will come out” and that “it was a crazy situation.” Still it’s a safe bet that Goodell and the staff in the normally flawless NFL publicity office were hoping for a different storyline one week before America’s most popular sports league gets down to business than one about a star player being imprisoned for “inflicting injury on a spouse or cohabitant,” in this case his pregnant wife.

Under the NFL’s new policy any employee, not just a player, found to have engaged in domestic violence or sexual assault will face a six game suspension for a first offense. A subsequent incident will result in a potential lifetime suspension. The new policy was announced in the wake of the league’s stunning mishandling of a domestic violence case involving Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens star running back. Rice cold cocked his then fiancé in an Atlantic City casino elevator, and was then caught on a security camera video dragging the unconscious woman out into a hallway. This was an offense that in his considered judgment Goodell decided merited a two-game suspension, one-half the penalty for an initial violation of the NFL’s drug policy.

Goodell’s decision was widely seen as little more than a slap on the wrist, one delivered with considerably less force than the blow that sent Janay Palmer to the floor of that Atlantic City elevator. After the suspension was announced Ravens head coach John Harbaugh appeared to defend Rice. Following his team’s first full-squad workout in July, Harbaugh said “I stand behind Ray. He’s a heck of a guy. He’s done everything right since.” Speaking at the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, the Commissioner insisted he was just being consistent with previous penalties for similar offenses.

Harbaugh’s clueless comments and the fact that Goodell was correct in his assessment of the NFL’s record of dealing with this type of player misconduct only fueled increasingly angry and vocal protests. Objections came not just from women’s groups but from many respected sports writers and a growing number of fans.

With the uproar showing no signs of abating, Goodell took the unprecedented step of admitting that he had made a mistake. In a 2,000 word letter to team owners, he wrote “My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn’t get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.”

Well, we will see. Even if a different truth comes out of the Ray McDonald case than the one that appears on the surface, the opportunity to put Goodell and the NFL’s new policy to the test will likely not have to wait long. The NFL is selling a fundamentally violent product played by men who tend not to top out at five foot seven and a hundred forty-five pounds. That its players, steeped in a culture of aggression, should turn to it all too easily off the gridiron is hardly surprising. Which it must be noted is entirely different from calling it justified.

For all the positive spin that the league put on this week’s announcement, the new policy is anything but ironclad. The six-game first offense ban allows for “consideration given to mitigating factors.” The supposed banishment for a second offense is softened by language that allows an individual to petition for reinstatement after one year.

When he became Commissioner eight years ago Goodell was pictured on the cover of Time magazine with a headline that read “The Enforcer.” He was committed to cleaning up player conduct and promoting player safety. For a time he lived up to that title and appeared dedicated to pursuing those goals. But since his suspensions of various New Orleans Saints players and personnel around the team’s bounty scandal were largely vacated on appeal, the Commissioner has been more enabler than enforcer. Facing an unprecedented and obviously unexpected backlash in the Ray Rice case, Goodell and the NFL publicity machine have promised to once again get tough. But as always, the proof will be not in the press releases, but in the punishments.

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