Earlier this week, New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden looked back at how National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell said he described his job to the rookies who were joining the NFL in 2010. “I did talk about what I call protecting the shield,” Goodell told journalists of his speech. “My job is to protect the integrity of the NFL.”
Rhoden was looking at the NFL’s handling of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s attack on his then-fianceé and the worship of Joe Paterno at Penn State to make a point that I think is obviously correct. When people commit to protecting an institution and prioritize its reputation above anything and anyone else, they risk setting themselves up to do terrible things. But in our discussions of the culture of the NFL, I think it is important to remember something else as well.
There are two ways to protect the integrity of an organization. One is to deny that the institution could possibly falter in any way and to hang onto that insistence to the point of absurdity. The other is to acknowledge that institutions and the humans who run them are fallible and to commit to vigorous standards of accountability to rectify lapses, punish transgressions and make restitution for the harms committed by the organization and in its name. The former approach separates the interests of the organization from the communities that surround it. The latter suggests that the two are inseparable.
The NFL’s handling of the Ray Rice incident is a perfect example of the former approach.
In February, Rice was captured on a casino security camera dragging Janay Palmer (now Janay Rice) out of an elevator: She was unconscious. The league and Rice’s then-team, the Ravens, attempted to portray the altercation as self-defense on Rice’s part, even though Palmer ended up completely incapacitated. “Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident,” the Ravens’ official Twitter account wrote in a since-deleted missive back in May. Goodell suspended Rice for a mere two games.
As the scandal has continued to unfold, the NFL’s and the team’s steps forward to accept responsibility have generally been accompanied by steps backward. When Rice was released by the Ravens, owner Steve Bisciotti wrote a letter to financial stakeholders in the team. He suggested simultaneously that “Ray had earned every benefit of the doubt from our organization,” before the release of the full video of his attack on Palmer, and acknowledged that one way the Ravens had extended “every benefit of the doubt” to their running back was to stop seeking the video.
Goodell has admitted that the two-game suspension was a poor choice that minimized the import of Rice’s actions. He has also denied that the NFL saw the full video of Rice’s assault on Palmer until this month, even though an NFL employee appears to have acknowledged receiving a copy of it from a law enforcement official in April.
This week, an NFL owner told the Wall Street Journal that Goodell portrayed his handling of Rice as a gesture of respect for Janay Rice. If Goodell truly believes this, rather than simply using the rationale as self-justification, he is showing a rather impressive disregard for any message he might be broadcasting on a large scale.
And ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. reported today that Goodell characterized Rice’s account of the attack as “ambiguous,” even though four sources told ESPN that Rice acknowledged punching his future wife.
This is hardly the first issue in Goodell’s tenure as commissioner in which he has stuck to denials as long as possible, then attempted to shift responsibility when denials are no longer a possibility.
The league has attacked the research of one of the doctors who established the link between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. When the NFL finally offered a settlement to players who suffered brain injuries, a judge rejected it as financially insufficient. Writing in the Atlantic earlier this month, Patrick Hruby suggested that even if approved at a higher level, the settlement is structured to make it difficult for players to claim compensation, leaving “Medicare, higher private insurance premiums, and charitable contributions” to cover the gap in costs for their health care.
To a certain extent, I understand this strategy. Goodell’s approach to his job has to been deny bad news as vigorously as possible. When it becomes impossible to deny that bad news utterly, his task then becomes to respond in a way that has minimal impact on the NFL’s finances and on the week-by-week play on the field.
As long as Goodell is willing to accept the public perception that he is dishonest or in denial, absorbing the damage on behalf of the league, I suppose it is a viable approach to protecting “the integrity of the NFL.” But no matter how much pain Goodell is willing to accept, this is a way of operating that leaves his league a little more battered with every incident. In life, unlike on the gridiron, sometimes it is better to take the hit and move expeditiously to heal from the damage.