Eight years ago, Roger Goodell emerged as the face of the National Football League. As its new commissioner, he was the most powerful man in America’s most powerful sport, ready to usher in a new, decidedly improved era of professional football. He promoted approachability, transparency and, most of all, discipline.
Before long he was lauded as the best commissioner in sports. In 2012, Time magazine featured him on its cover; the headline was “THE ENFORCER,” the story about how Goodell was leading efforts to save and protect the nation’s most popular game with a no-nonsense attitude toward player misbehavior on and off the field.
“My job,” he told a group of the league’s rookies in 2010, “is to protect the integrity of the NFL.”
But this week, his name now as much a part of NFL culture as its most famous players and teams, the 55-year-old commissioner began taking on heavy fire for his judgment and ability to perform his self-described job description. Scrutiny, particularly recently, is nothing new, but it has never been harsher than this week, following the publishing of a video Monday that showed former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, and then dragging her unconscious body out of an Atlantic City casino elevator. It was footage, Goodell told the “CBS Evening News” on Tuesday, he had not seen during the NFL’s earlier investigation into the matter.
Goodell’s words eased little of the pressure on the commissioner, and in fact, those in and around the NFL community have begun scrutinizing Goodell’s priorities and, in some cases, calling for his job.
Depending on viewpoint, the NFL was either unable despite its vast resources to procure the same video from the Revel Hotel and Casino that TMZ somehow acquired and published. Or, as TMZ reported Tuesday morning, the league simply never asked for it in an effort to ferry out a lighter punishment for Rice.
The league released a statement Monday saying it had requested the video from Atlantic City law enforcement but that it was never made available. The statement reiterated that league officials viewed the images for the first time Monday.
Goodell, in the CBS interview, said league officials asked Atlantic City authorities for “anything pertinent” after seeing the initial security footage, which showed Rice pulling Palmer into the hallway during last February’s altercation.
“We are particularly reliant on law enforcement. That is the most reliable. That is the most credible,” Goodell said. “We don’t seek to get that information from sources that are not credible.”
An NFL spokesman did not respond to a request for additional comment, but New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was among those who felt compelled to defend Goodell.
“I know our commissioner has taken some heat,” Kraft said during an appearance on “CBS This Morning.”
“I just want to say that I spoke with him [Monday] when this came out, not knowing what was going to happen and knowing I was coming in here [for the television interview]. And he didn’t — he had no knowledge of this video. The way he’s handled this situation himself, coming out with the mea culpa in his statement a couple weeks ago or 10 days ago, and setting a very clear policy how we conduct ourselves in the NFL, I thought was excellent. And anyone who’s second-guessing that doesn’t know him.”
Others in the league rejected any hint that Goodell’s job was in jeopardy. “Look, it’s clear there were mistakes made,” an executive with another NFL team said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to give a frank assessment of owners’ sentiments about the case. “. . . But if you’re asking me if people are ready to throw [Goodell] overboard because of this, the answer is no. I don’t think that would be a correct interpretation.”
In late August, Goodell outlined a new domestic-violence policy for the NFL with more severe punishments for first-time and repeat offenders, though the memo drew attention more for Goodell’s admission that he “didn’t get it right” by handing Rice a two-game suspension in July.
Such an about-face had been rare for Goodell, whose reputation in his early years as commissioner centered on swift and decisive action to those who made the league look bad.
In the year before Goodell succeeded longtime commissioner Paul Tagliabue in 2006, NFL players had been arrested 61 times, awareness of performance-enhancing drugs and football’s role in brain injuries was in its infancy, and Major League Baseball had nearly caught up with the NFL in annual revenue. If the NFL had been the Wild West, players frequently running afoul of the law, then Goodell was its sheriff. He and players’ union chief Gene Upshaw drafted new personal-conduct and drug policies, and if a player or coach stepped out of line, the offender was invited to share his side with Goodell in his New York office before the commissioner lowered the boom.
In March 2008, a league spokesman touted a 20 percent drop in off-field incidents, Goodell’s hammer not only punishing wrongdoers but acting as a deterrent.
Regardless, the NFL Players Association saw flaws in Goodell’s approach — leading former union president Domonique Foxworth to say Tuesday that the problems with the Rice decision were “something that we foresaw.”
“There’s a reason why one person serving as judge, jury and executioner doesn’t really work and no one really supports that as a judicial process anywhere in the world,” said Foxworth, who shared a Ravens locker room with Rice for three seasons.
A lockout of game officials and revelations in 2012 that the New Orleans Saints were receiving bounty payments for knockout hits shook confidence in Goodell’s vision of a squeaky-clean NFL. This summer’s mild initial punishment of Rice and delayed response in disciplining Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay for driving while impaired this past March — the NFL finally announced a six-game suspension and $500,000 fine for Irsay last week — drew questions about whether Goodell had gone soft.
Foxworth said Goodell’s emphasis on making unilateral decisions led to the Rice controversy. If the players’ association had been involved in discussions about how to discipline Rice, Foxworth said, the sides not only could have negotiated an appropriate punishment — Goodell could have shifted at least part of the blame to the union.
“One of the many reasons,” Foxworth said, “why this construct is a bad one.”
Still, he said, he didn’t think Goodell’s job security was in serious danger. Not when, on his watch, the NFL has reasserted itself as a powerhouse. Television networks and providers clamor for broadcast rights, companies line up to align themselves as sponsors, and annual revenues — which, during Goodell’s first year as commissioner, had been slightly more than $6 billion — now allowed team owners to divide a $9 billion pot, far more than any other U.S. sports league.
This, Foxworth said, would make owners think twice about ousting Goodell, who in addition to the owners’ confidence pocketed $44.2 million in salary, bonuses, benefits and deferred payments in 2012, according to tax filings.
“While he’s the commissioner, he’s not the boss. The owners are the bosses, and I would say that it’s nice for them to have somebody out there who can take these arrows if something like this pops up,” Foxworth said. “It’s unfair to give him that much credit for anything or that much blame.
“Maybe this whole incident will cause him to see the light on certain things.”
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