National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell’s first public attempt to address the domestic abuse scandal involving Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice could be judged a success — but only by comparison to former President Richard Nixon’s I-am-not-a-crook debacle or former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s defense of selfies of his man parts.
Accustomed to coasting on his good looks, lucky breeding (he’s the son of a senator), and fine tailoring, Goodell was all platitudes at the news conference Friday, his sense of entitlement seeping through. Cosseted by a thick ring of public-relations handlers who’ve helped him keep his job through multiple scandals, including the revelation that as many as one in three NFL players may develop cognitive problems, he thought he could make a few domestic dust-ups go away.
He approached the task like a teenager promising not to ding the car fender again. He’s going “to do better” and “get it right.” He has ordered an inside inquiry to get to the bottom of things. He’s coming up with new rules on domestic violence (along with a new panel of four, as yet invisible, women consultants). He’s devoting resources to a domestic abuse hotline. Why should he keep his job, given his initial decision to give Rice a mere two-game suspension as punishment, he was asked? Because he is acknowledging his mistake, he said. That’s precisely what he didn’t do.
As appalling as the commissioner’s behavior is, it’s not that out of synch with the attitude that prevails in the law enforcement community. The first tape of Rice’s abuse of his fiancée is enough for any normal person to banish him from football; the second piece of footage was enough to send him to prison for felonious assault and battery if we had a working criminal justice system.
We don’t. Domestic violence doesn’t get prosecuted as the pure violence it is, the adjective “domestic” draining the violence of its meaning. Judges give lectures rather than sentences, batterers frequently get a pass for one free beating, and restraining orders are poorly enforced, even though a survey estimated that people who report or leave an abusive partner raise their likelihood of being murdered by the abuser by 75 percent.
Like politicians who just don’t get it and believe in their own greatness, Goodell showed he hadn’t internalized how outrage over his behavior had seeped into the culture. Network news programs interviewed parents and sons waiting in a long line to get a refund for their Ray Rice shirts (7,000 have been turned in).
Late-night hosts were full of derision (Bill Maher said he would now call football jerseys “wife beaters”). The first tape, which showed Rice dragging the limp body of his fiancée out of a casino elevator, was bad enough. The second one, shot inside the elevator and showing Rice knocking his fiancé unconscious, made Goodell look completely irresponsible. He claims he never saw the second tape, which was released by TMZ on Sept. 8, even though the Associated Press reported the league had it in hand in April. A TMZ reporter, incredulous, said at the press conference that he obtained it with one phone call.
Goodell is busy making Rice the liar of the piece, repeating his claim that he based his mild initial two-game suspension on Rice’s account of what happened inside the elevator, which would prove to be “inconsistent” with what the security footage would later show.
There was more evidence that the Ravens and Goodell knew how serious the assault was before the TMZ bombshell in two in-depth reports by ESPN, with interviews of 20 sources. In February, immediately after the incident occurred, the Ravens’ security officer gave team executives a read-out of what had happened in the elevator. And Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome told the Baltimore Sun that “Ray didn’t lie to me,” when describing what happened. Newsome hasn’t retracted that statement. In the belief that Goodell had all the information the Ravens did, Rice blurted out everything so as not to be accused of being uncooperative. Rice and team owner Steve Biscotti asked the commissioner for leniency. Ever accommodating, Goodell gave Rice a slap on the wristband.
Bisciotti said Monday that the Ravens hadn’t asked for leniency for Rice, adding that the team was surprised the player initially received only a two-game suspension. He suggested that ESPN’s sources were lying to help build a case for Rice’s reinstatement on appeal. That appeal now promises to be a “he said, he said” about what Goodell knew when he initially gave Rice a pass.
Goodell has gone off-sides many times before but always survived thanks to a football fan base that gets more exercised about $15 burgers than bad behavior. Then there are the team owners, who parlayed money from their more boring endeavors into exciting sports franchises, and pay Goodell a $44 million annual salary to protect their stars. In exchange, Goodell acts as judge and jury, handing out as little punishment as he can get away with (reinstating Michael Vick after he went to prison for killing dogs in his dogfighting enterprise), inconsistent punishment ($50,000, or five minutes pay, for Brett Favre who refused to cooperate when accused by a female colleague at the New York Jets of sending jock strap sexts), and no punishment. (Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers was allowed to continue to play while he appealed his conviction for throwing his pregnant fiancée onto a pile of guns and threatening to kill her. Public outrage eventually forced Goodell to place him on to the inactive list.)
Football was already on the ropes after the class-action lawsuit by players over brain damage and the testimony from wives who now must spoon-feed their husbands. Participation in pee-wee leagues such as Pop Warner’s is down as parents become aware of the danger from soft heads being hit by hard helmets. The sport could become the province of poor kids in need of a college scholarship.
A few in Congress are trying to remove the league’s laughable tax-exempt status as a non-profit. On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein came close to calling for Goodell’s resignation. But only football can clean up football and Goodell sullied himself too much at his news conference to be the guy to do the job.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.
© 2014, Bloomberg News