Roger Goodell and the NFL’s Path to Power

The NFL cares about only one thing: protecting the 32 franchise owners. With that in mind, you’d have to say their rules work perfectly.

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“I’m not an attorney.”

That’s the one statement that was uttered during NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s testimony in early November at a hearing before federal Judge Barbara S. Jones that is absolutely unassailable. The rest? Not so much.

On Wednesday, ESPN’s Don Van Natta unleashed a bombshell report outlining the multiple contradictions, lack of intellectual curiosity and/or willful blindness on Goodell’s part during an appeal of his second, indefinite suspension of Ray Rice; one that was levied immediately following the release of the damning video from inside the elevator in which Rice was seen battering his then-fiancée Janay Palmer. The judge ultimately revoked that suspension, after she determined that Goodell’s decision was “arbitrary” and “an abuse of discretion.”

The crushing irony is that Van Natta’s article landed on the very same day that the league rolled out its brand spanking new personal-conduct policy, one that codifies the changes that were announced in the fall, when the league was scrambling to defend itself from a firestorm of negative press.

But it’s not just the calendar that binds these two events. In both news items, we see the league, and specifically Goodell’s office, seeing a self-generated crisis not as an inherent problem with the NFL, but as a public-relations issue that can be solved by enhancing the power of the bungler-in-chief—the commissioner himself.

The bold font revelation is that Goodell’s televised statement and follow-up memo to the league’s 32 owners was not true. He claimed: “On multiple occasions, we asked the proper law-enforcement authorities to share with us all relevant information, including any video of the incident.” Even if you look at that in the most favorable light possible, it was not accurate.

According to the ESPN story: One day prior, “the league’s lead investigator on the Rice matter [Jim Buckley] had actually told the league’s director of security that he had never requested the inside-casino elevator video from the one law-enforcement agency that actually had it, the Atlantic City Police Department.” Buckley had emailed the league’s chief of security, Jeffrey Miller, saying, “Again, I never spoke to anyone at the casino or the police department about the tape.”

When pressed for an explanation as to this seeming contradiction by the NFL players’ union’s outside counsel, Jeffrey Kessler, Goodell hemmed and hawed, or retreated into a kind of willful obtuseness, including the “not a lawyer” line above.

In what might be the most damning example, Goodell ends a somewhat heated, testy exchange by burbling, “I wasn’t aware of the fact that they tried to get it from law enforcement. I do not know the specifics.”

There’s much, much more, including gobs of evidence that make it eminently clear that the NFL should have known exactly what Rice did even without seeing the video, and a darkly comic scene in which Goodell furrows his brow and labors to recite or describe the full meaning of the meager handwritten notes he took during his initial interview with Rice and Palmer, including vague shorthand phrases like “he’s own it” [sic] and “terrible mistake.”

Here’s the punch line. What was Goodell’s rationale for a seeming lack of diligence? “He prefers to observe players’ actions during a disciplinary hearing.”

With that in mind, let’s take a gander at the new personal-conduct policy. For the moment, we’ll disregard the fact that the process doesn’t begin until a player is “formally charged with a violent crime or sexual assault,” meaning the problems within the criminal-justice system with regard to domestic violence are still being used as a buffer to allow a player to continue to ply his trade.

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Once the NFL has completed its investigation—and considering how they handled the Rice affair, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone that has confidence in their detective work—and levied their self-determined appropriate punishment, you know who has the final say over an appeal of a suspension?

That’s right. It’s the commish, Roger Goodell.

That’s not what NFL Players’ Union wanted. They preferred having an independent arbitrator in place to hear any and all appeals. That would seem to be slightly more just than the current system, in which Roger Goodell gets to rubber stamp Roger Goodell’s decisions. But of course, the union was shut out of the process, according to spokesman George Atallah.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft explained their vote thusly: “I know that some people have questioned whether the commissioner’s office should be the final arbiter. We gave that a lot of thought. [And determined] that’s the one person who understands, long term, what’s in the best interests of the game.”

That’s the phrase that sticks: “The best interests of the game.” It’s a slightly less militaristic, more fan-friendly version of Goodell’s longtime personal mission statement, “Defending the Shield.’

Which is almost a joke. The actual “best interests of the game” rarely dovetail with the best interests of the men (and women) that are employed by the NFL, to say nothing of the fans that serve as their customer base.

What Kraft actually meant was, this decision was made in the best interests of the 32 corporations that own NFL teams. And if a player or union rep should take umbrage with any decision regarding a suspension or even the new policy itself, Goodell will be there to bark the spin-friendly stance that the league is taking a “tough stance” against domestic violence. They’ll throw said player to the wolves, just like they did the mounting pile of ex-players that are suffering from the harrowing effects of brain trauma and painkiller addiction.

“The lesson the NFL took out of this, then, is not that its disciplinary procedures are out of whack; that it overstepped its bounds in an attempt to mitigate public backlash to its own bungling of the Rice case; that a carefully bargained policy with player and union input might prevent that in the future; or even that, perhaps, it shouldn’t be in the business of positioning itself as our nation’s moral arbiter,” Travis Waldron wrote at Think Progress. “The lesson it took, instead, is that to prevent another public-relations crisis, it needed to consolidate its power and bring down even harsher punishments. In the best interests of the league.”

In this light, even Goodell’s buffoonery is cynically understandable. If he’s lasted this long, the chances of him being booted are almost nil. More to the point, Goodell’s an inflatable clown doll that exists to get battered by the public and press every couple of months, and then pop back up again. He’s doing the job he was hired to do—keep the heat as far away from the men that own game as humanly possible, lest someone dare to suggest that they might be just as responsible for this mess as he is.

The non-answers, equivocations, obfuscations, and even possible negligence detailed in the ESPN piece, therefore, are in “the best interests of the game.”

The system works.