Roger Goodell, the NFL’s judge and jury, becomes his own executioner
Oh, yes, let’s torch and pitchfork the NFL for its handling of the Ray Rice case and not rest until NFL Commission Roger Goodell pays for his incompetence or his bad judgment — whichever proves greater — with his resignation. Then, after a good night’s sleep, let’s ask ourselves why, after cementing his reputation across the league as a hanging judge, did Goodell pick the Rice case to appear insufficiently authoritarian?
Rice, who dealt his then-fiancée Janay Palmer a knockout punch in an Atlantic City casino elevator last February and dragged her out and dumped her like a tackling dummy, may be one of the least sympathetic players ever to appear for judgment in the court of Goodell. Rice hadn’t gotten caught violating the league’s drug policy, as did Cleveland Browns star receiver Josh Gordon, and for which he earned a one-year suspension this summer. Goodell banned Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from four games of the 2010 season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Roethlisberger’s offense? A college student accused him of assaulting her in a nightclub. The quarterback was not convicted of anything. He wasn’t even charged. But Goodell punished him.
In June 2007, Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson earned an eight-game suspension from Goodell for being arrested on gun-related charges. In 2008, New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress was suspended for four games after accidentally shooting himself. In 2009, quarterback Michael Vick was suspended indefinitely (and later reinstated) for dogfighting. In 2012, following accusations that the New Orleans Saints had paid “bounties” to players for delivering injury-inflicting hits on opponents, Goodell suspended three of its coaches, several players, yanked draft selections from the team, and fined it as well. The player suspensions were vacated, but Goodell’s reputation as a hard-ass was only enhanced.
Then comes Ray Rice into his chamber, and Goodell goes all soft? It doesn’t make sense. A piece of muscle like Rice landed on Janay Palmer (to whom he is now married) could have been more permanently injurious than any of the Saints’ “bounty” hits. Beside, as a non-player, Palmer hadn’t given consent to being hit in the first place!
Even though Goodell knew that Rice knocked Palmer out, even though he knew Rice was indicted by a grand jury for third-degree aggravated assault, he gave the running back a mere two-game suspension? Don Van Natta Jr.’s 2013 profile of Goodell, “His Game, His Rules,” provides a slew of clues. From the time Goodell rose to NFL commissioner in 2007, he has fashioned himself “a no-nonsense disciplinarian, toughening the personal-conduct rules in 2007 to enforce harsh punishment for off-the-field misbehavior by any player, coach or executive.”
Although vengeful, Goodell has also demonstrated a capacity for forgiveness. Johnson, one of the NFL players suspended on gun-charges by Goodell, counts the commissioner as his friend. “I can pick up the phone and speak to him at any time, whenever I need to, about anything,” the former player said recently.
The key to getting along with Goodell, as Van Natta points out, is to submit to his will. “Goodell seemed to relish the role of a tough-as-nails prosecutor and judge. Word quickly ricocheted around the NFL’s executive suites: Don’t lie; he won’t tolerate it. When a player or his lawyer asked Goodell for leniency behind a closed door, he’d bristle or even bark,” Van Natta writes.
A Sport Illustrated feature from 2011 makes the same point, with a quotation from Michael Vick. “The way Roger talked to me when I was still hiding from what I’d done was such a slap in the face,” Vick said. “Like, ‘Don’t you lie to me!’ With stronger language than that. It was rough.” When Vick was released from jail, he bowed to Goodell, saying, “I’m the one who did this. It’s my fault.”
Convinced of Vick’s sincerity, Goodell soon let the player back in the league.
We don’t know what sort of case Rice pleaded to Judge Goodell to earn his mild — by Goodell standards — punishment, but we can guess. By marrying his fiancée, avoiding prosecution by applying for pretrial intervention as a first-time offender entering anger management counseling, Rice obviously mollified the commissioner.
Today, the universal court of opinion, having seen the punch-out video, believes Goodell under-punished Rice. And not just the court of opinion. Rice’s team, the Baltimore Ravens, dumped him, and the NFL resentenced him to indefinite suspension. Either the NFL was unaware of the punch-out video when Goodell originally suspended Rice for two games, or it thought the damning tape would never surface and that Goodell knew what was best for Rice, Palmer-Rice (with whom he has a daughter), and the NFL. In defense of Goodell’s lenient stand, the prosecutors in the Rice case say that the running back didn’t get a better deal than other first-time offenders in similar circumstances.
Now it’s Goodell who is under investigation, with the league assigning former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III to determine what Goodell and the league knew and when they knew it. My advice to the commissioner: Bow and take your medicine.
I won’t judge Judge Goodell until all the evidence is in, but I will speculate about what got him into today’s fix. The power he enjoyed as the “tough-as-nails prosecutor and judge” of NFL players, coaches, and owners may have gone to his head. As any judge can tell you, issuing the correct sentence is difficult, requiring the bench to balance individual and societal interests, as well as the letter of the law. The upside of a real court is that it does its work in public, subject to the review of the public. The downside of Goodell’s court is that it heard evidence and dispensed justice from behind closed doors. No matter how noble Goodell’s intentions or how judicious his previous calls, he appears to have been undone by the echo-chamber — or a star chamber, depending on your view — he built that amplifies only his voice.
And now it’s his turn to be judged.
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PHOTO: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines before the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field. Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports