Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 11, 2014

Goodell And The NFL Still Don’t Get It

A NOTE TO READERS: Following up on last Sunday’s post, another excellent perspective on Derek Jeter Day at the Stadium can be found at Alicia Barnhart’s always entertaining blog.

We’ve seen it before of course, and it’s always painful to watch. A hero comes to the final chapter of his or her career, and skills erode. In the parlance of sports, the player has lost a step. A batting average plummets, interceptions mount, or putts that used to be automatic stop falling. Only in this case it’s not an athlete who is suddenly stumbling, but the man widely regarded as the most powerful figure in sports. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell remains mired in controversy over his handling of the Ray Rice case, and the usually sure-footed executive seems unable to escape a rising tide of criticism.

As noted here just a little over a week ago, harsh reaction to Goodell’s original tepid punishment of Baltimore Ravens star running back Rice for knocking out his then-fiancee in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino finally forced the Commissioner to issue a revised league policy on domestic violence. Of course the new policy with its stiffer penalties and Goodell’s lengthy letter to owners taking responsibility for the publicity nightmare had both barely come off the printer when another player, this time the 49ers Ray McDonald, was arrested on domestic violence charges.

No doubt all 32 NFL owners and their beloved Commissioner were hoping that public attention would turn to the action on the field with the first weekend of regular season games last weekend. But on Monday celebrity gossip website TMZ published a video taken that sorry February night from inside the elevator. Football fans and sportswriters who had until that point only seen grainy footage of Rice dragging his unconscious wife-to-be out of the elevator like a sack of potatoes now could have their stomachs turned by footage of him sending her to the floor with a left hook to the head.

Within hours of the video becoming public the NFL suspended Rice indefinitely and the Ravens terminated his contract. But if Goodell thought that he had finally gotten ahead of the curve on this story he was sadly mistaken. The NFL claimed that no one had seen the video from inside the elevator until it was posted on TMZ. Then on Tuesday an anonymous New Jersey law enforcement official told the Associated Press that the damning video had been sent to the NFL in April, and produced a brief voice mail from a league office telephone number with a female voice confirming its receipt and adding “You’re right. It’s terrible.”

While still insisting that no league official had seen the video prior to this week, on Wednesday Goodell said that he had asked former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to conduct an independent investigation of the NFL’s “pursuit and handling of evidence in the Ray Rice domestic violence incident.” As the first calls for Goodell’s resignation came from sources well outside the NFL, others questioned just how truly independent Mueller’s investigation would be, since his law firm has a variety of ties to the league. Several former partners of the firm now hold executive jobs with various NFL franchises. Then there is the unavoidable fact that the former top cop’s fees will be paid by the very entity that he is being asked to investigate.

On Thursday, before Mueller could even begin his work, the story took yet another twist with an ESPN report that four sources had confirmed that in his initial interview with Goodell prior to the original two-game suspension, Rice told the Commissioner that he had in fact punched Janay Palmer while in the elevator. Appearing earlier this week on “CBS This Morning” Goodell said “When we met with Ray Rice and his representatives, it was ambiguous about what actually happened.”

Perhaps in time Bob Mueller will be able to sort out and tell us whether that horribly graphic video was seen in the NFL’s office months ago, or only moments ago. Perhaps he will be able to determine and enlighten us on whether Ray Rice lied back in June, or Roger Goodell lied just this week. Perhaps fans and sportswriters will turn their attention to the games being played, and the controversy will all fade into the background. Or perhaps not. CBS has been advertising the start of Thursday Night Football for months. What bad luck that the first game should feature the Steelers versus Ray Rice’s former team.

The NFL remains the country’s number one sport and a magnificent money machine for 32 owners and hundreds of players. As long as that is true, notwithstanding calls from a few women’s groups or members of Congress, Roger Goodell’s job is safe. But no amount of job security can erase the fact that Goodell and his league have blundered badly. The Commissioner’s initial response was driven by a desire to protect the enormous marketability of his league. With that as his compass he was apparently clueless to the fact that there are some issues that rise above legal niceties or corporate well-being. In life there are moral issues, and sometimes they intrude even into our sports. Since that critical initial misjudgment, Goodell and the NFL have been racing to catch up. So far at least, they are still running behind.

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