The most important words in Roger Goodell's letter to NFL owners about the league's new domestic violence policy were not his ones about the length of the new punishment (a six-game suspension for the first offense, banishment from the league for the second).
They were these: "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."
After the loud — and much deserved — outcry over the mere two-game suspension handed to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for allegedly striking his then-fiancee and dragging her out of an elevator, it seemed obvious the NFL would have to respond in a significant way. Players who test positive for smoking pot, as many have pointed out, are immediately suspended for four games. Criticism from domestic violence experts, sports writers and politicians left the league with little choice but to come out with a harsher punishment and a more comprehensive way of addressing what appears to be a real problem for the NFL.
Goodell could have left it at that: new disciplinary actions, new training, more resources, more outreach. But he didn't. He said the league "clearly" fell short in its response to the recent incident, though he didn't name Rice explicitly. He agreed "the NFL is held to a higher standard, and properly so." And he acknowledged the "fundamental recognition that the NFL is a leader, that we do stand for important values, and that we can project those values in ways that have a positive impact beyond professional football."
While Goodell didn't offer an outright apology — which would have been even better — his words were a concession that he had been wrong, and held himself responsible. A commissioner who made a decision as tone deaf as the one involving Ray Rice needed to say as much.
Now, of course, the policies will have to be vigorously enforced. The new rules do say the six-week punishment could be "more severe" if the violence is particularly aggravated, say if a weapon is used or it occurs in the presence of a child. But it also says "mitigating circumstances will be considered," a loophole that will hopefully rarely be exploited.
The NFL had to come out strong with a harsher discipline after all the criticism. Too many kids, teens and young men look to these players as examples, and few organizations have as much power to send a strong message to men on an issue as the NFL does when it takes a stand. By taking personal responsibility, admitting he got it wrong and recognizing the NFL's leadership role, Goodell took a stand too. Now he'll just have to be sure he backs it up with real enforcement.