Roger Goodell needs help. He is so blinded by his own power he no longer sees clearly. The NFL commissioner needs professional intervention — similar to family and friends forming circles around those battling addiction — to tell him what he needs to hear instead of what he wants to.
Most of America is rightly furious that Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who knocked his then fiancee unconscious in a casino elevator after a physical dispute, was suspended a mere two games by a tone-deaf commissioner.
The February video of Rice dragging Janay Rice, whom he later married, is as damning today as it was five months ago. The Ravens running back escaped prosecution only by being accepted into a pretrial intervention program, which if completed will wipe the assault charge off his criminal record.
This was a moment for Goodell to show that domestic violence will not be tolerated on his watch. This was a moment for the man who speaks of honoring the “Shield,” as if his league were West Point or Annapolis, to make players understand the part of their contract that carries a moral turpitude clause — that being a good citizen is more important than being a great football player.
This was not a moment for a $45-million-a-year sports attorney, with no mental-health training in his background, to play domestic-abuse counselor and therapist in his Manthattan office.
Goodell has made numerous mistakes — from using his wife to help him sell youth football to concerned Midwestern mothers to the hiring of celebrity physician Mehmet Oz to combat the research of actual neurologists amid the NFL’s concussion catastrophe to backing Daniel Snyder to the hilt in a name-change campaign.
But his handling of this issue shows a dearth of sensitivity that blows away his other lapses in discipline, judgment and compassion.
Goodell should worry less about the criticism he’s facing from fans and media over such a lenient suspension — two of 16 games, nearly $500,000 of a $4 million deal — and more about the domestic-violence experts coming forward to ask how he could possibly base part of his ruling on an interview in his office between the victim and her perpetrator.
Goodell brought in Ray and Janay Rice to New York on June 16. According to a report by Peter King that no one has refuted, the meeting also included NFL deputies Jeff Pash and Adolpho Birch, and Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome and team president Dick Cass were also present. At the meeting, Janay apparently asked Goodell for leniency, calling the incident a “one-time event” and adding that any real punitive action could “ruin Rice’s image and career.”
But virtually every mental-health professional and victims-rights advocate will say that meeting never should have happened the way it did. They’ll tell you under no circumstances should a victim be brought in to either mitigate the perpetrator’s actions or plead for his leniency.
Beyond the obvious fact that Janay Rice might not feel comfortable truly giving her side of the story, many domestic-abuse victims often blame themselves for being beaten. In police stations, shelters and beyond, the couple is separated because too many victims are either still afraid or have been told what to say by the perpetrator.
Even the uncomfortable news conference by the Rices in May had a disturbing feel, as if Janay was on the cusp of saying, “It was my fault.” Again, battered women often minimize the fault of the men who hit them. The fact that Goodell and his attorneys opened that door at all is unconscionable.
In the aftermath Goodell has been silent, sending out Birch, a Harvard-educated lawyer, as an emissary. Birch’s pathetic, excuse-ridden interview with ESPN radio also has been pilloried.
Goodell needs to step up and represent the “Shield” himself today. He needs to explain why he thought putting a battered woman and the man who knocked her out into the same room to help decide discipline was remotely a good idea.
And if he can’t, he needs more help than the best counseling Ray and Janay Rice will ever receive.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.