In 2007, Roger Goodell declared a new “personal conduct policy,” contending that NFL players needed to be held to a higher standard to protect the image and integrity of the league. The scandals now engulfing the league can be traced to a single source: the superciliousness of a commissioner who thought the deepest societal ills — domestic abuse, sexual violence, drug use — could be handled with a morals clause.
Goodell has always talked about “the shield” without ever being clear on what such a device should be used for — to protect or hide. Nor has he ever been clear whether he and the players are even on the same side of it.
It’s possible to be frustrated by Goodell’s handling of the slug-fisted Ray Rice, and the whip-handed Adrian Peterson, yet have an uneasy sense that the last thing the NFL needs is a more discipline-minded commissioner. Every morning this week, roughly 1,600 men in the league woke up, rose from their beds and went to work after kissing their wives, hugging their girlfriends and taking their children to school. The majority of them acted as loving husbands, good fathers and stand-up citizens. “But we don’t have the video on that,” sports attorney David Cornwell says.
The irony of Goodell’s “policy” is that it actually is an implicit slur on NFL players, stereotyping them as wanton marauders incapable of self-governance. And it positions them as guilty boys standing before the schoolmaster with a stick. The nasty little secret of the NFL is that the men who run the game don’t think very highly of the men who play it.
That’s the real underpinning of Goodell’s posturing about discipline and talk about “due process”: It’s a cover for fear and guilt on the executive suite level, because some NFL teams have fielded players despite knowing they had serious issues, saw their menacing behavior off the field as an asset on it. Andrew Brandt, who spent a decade in the front office of the Green Bay Packers, remembers an occasion when the team considered signing a player with a rap sheet as long as a street block. Brandt said, “I just don’t feel good about bringing this guy in.” To which another team official replied:
“What do you think we’re asking these guys to do? We want this guy to get into 75 street fights every game, and win ’em. We’re not asking him to lead a boys choir.”
The conversation, Brandt says, “always struck me.” The underlying assumption was that a certain amount of uncurbed, foaming brutality was not just tolerable, but desirable and worth the exchange. You can’t expect a T-Rex to have table manners.
Ray Rice round-housed his future wife in an elevator. Ray McDonald is accused of hitting his pregnant fiancee. Greg Hardy was not only convicted of beating his girlfriend but of throwing her on a bed with 10 semi-automatic weapons, threatening to kill her, and dragging her around by her hair. Adrian Peterson whipped a 4-year-old with a switch until he cut him.
These are not failures of “personal conduct.” They are not lapses, or spillovers from playing the game of football. They are serious problems stemming from deep damage.
And they have utterly exposed Goodell’s paternal “higher standard” talk, his “protect the shield and the integrity of the game” nonsense as the archaic fantasy-peddling it is. America quit asking actors, musicians and politicians to live up to morals clauses a long time ago, for the simple reason that reality overtook naive hero-worshipping. The audience came to a more human, if disappointed, understanding.
The NFL does not rise to a “higher standard,” or descend to a lower one either; the truth of the league is more complicated than that. It’s populated by 1,600 to 1,800 young men between the ages of 20 and 40, with the attendant stresses and problems of that population, compounded by high pain levels and little job security, alternating with elements of wealth and entitlement.
Various publications from USA Today (which maintains an NFL arrest database) to the Web site fivethirtyeight.com have crunched numbers trying to discern whether the league has a spillover violence issue. They’ve found that in general, NFL players are actually arrested at a lower rate than the national average, and they commit fewer domestic assaults.
But the real bottom line is that it’s dangerous to judge players as a group: Some locker rooms have a much higher arrest rate and some have almost none. The Minnesota Vikings, for instance, have had four times as many arrests as the St. Louis Rams since 2000. What matters is the team’s individual culture.
All of Goodell’s concern about “the shield” is superficial branding, and it obscures these confusing but important nuances and truths. He ceaselessly intones that playing in the NFL is a “privilege” and focuses on HGH testing and marijuana, which conveniently distracts from chronic narcotic over-prescriptions by NFL doctors, and data that shows NFL vets have a 30 percent chance of developing Alzheimer’s, dementia or other neurological diseases.
The NFL doesn’t need a Chip Hilton throwback for a commissioner when it comes to these issues. It needs someone who will move it into the 21st century in social science and medicine. On Monday, Goodell hired three women to “advise” him on domestic violence. He also appointed a female in-house “vice president of social responsibility.” Wonderful. A vice president of social responsibility, that’ll fix it. Small wonder Keith Olbermann, Anheuser-Busch, Radisson hotels, the governor of Minnesota, and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) are all trying to do Goodell’s job. And making it all but impossible for an NFL player to get a fair hearing amid this high-volume distortion.
Goodell’s “personal conduct policy” is a failure for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that in making “player-discipline” such a self-congratulating, high-profile priority, he invited the current scrutiny. As former linebacker James Harrison tweeted, “Ain’t no fun when the rabbit got the gun, huh?” But mainly, Goodell’s policy is a failure because it stigmatizes players while failing to address the fundamental, profound reality that there are some ills that get the best of people.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins