Roger Goodell finally emerged from hiding Friday afternoon, 10 days after disappearing from the public eye, and all I could ask myself after listening to him was: How do I get back those 45 minutes?
As news conferences go, this one was a disaster — and I’m not even referring to Goodell showing up late or an unidentified man being forcibly escorted from the proceedings while screaming for security not to take him to an elevator.
With nearly two weeks to take some sort of action and calm the waters, Goodell essentially asked for more time. The session in a New York ballroom was long on generalities and short on specifics. He repeatedly told us he “got it wrong” when he initially suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice two games for knocking out his then-fiancée in an elevator, but disappointingly, he then fell back on the tried-and-true NFL formula for public crises: Acknowledge the problem, throw money at it, promise to get it right, then wait for the weekend’s games to distract the football public, a la Pavlov’s dog.
I’m unsure whether I’m more shocked or incredulous that this was the best the league could do. Goodell promised us transparency, yet when asked exactly what Rice told him during their face-to-face meeting prior to the initial two-game suspension, Goodell said he couldn’t comment because a subsequent indefinite suspension is being appealed. Come again?
You write a letter to Rice saying that his discipline has been increased because a second video “shows a starkly different sequence of events from what you and your representatives stated when we met on June 16, and is important new information that warrants reconsideration of the discipline imposed on you in July,” but you won’t say how it’s different — even after Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said: “What we saw on the [second] video was what Ray said. Ray didn’t lie to me.”
With transparency shot, let’s move to accountability. Two years ago Goodell claimed the Saints were running a bounty program and suspended Saints coach Sean Payton without pay for the season. When Payton denied any knowledge of the alleged program, Goodell lectured him that “ignorance is not an excuse.” Still, when asked about reports that someone in his office received a copy of the second Rice video before the commissioner handed down a two-game suspension, Goodell said he was unaware of the existence of the tape.
Worse, when asked why he should be allowed to keep his job, he answered: “Because I acknowledged my mistake [in the handling of the case].” Really? It would be illuminating to know how many players acknowledged their mistakes before Goodell suspended them without pay under the personal conduct policy, but, as we’ve already established, transparency isn’t the commissioner’s strong suit.
Perhaps I expected too much from Goodell. It was a given that the league was going to throw money at anti-domestic violence programs and bring in people to help enlighten a management team that, to many outsiders, appears completely detached from the real world. The fact that Goodell actually needed to call the heads of domestic violence centers to learn about the breadth of the crime — and why he was taking more criticism than law enforcement and the legal system — hints of a person who steps down from his ivory tower only for photo ops.
We didn’t need to hear what Goodell plans to do. We needed to hear what he has done. His words mean nothing at this point, because his credibility is at an all-time low. Making the situation even more problematic is that he failed to provide any details for the plan he wants to implement. For instance, he said he’s going to meet with NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith to put together a “conduct committee” for league employees. What he didn’t say: How many people will be on the committee? What will the process be for determining which recommendations from the committee are implemented? Who will have final say on the committee’s membership? I would hope the answer would not be Roger Goodell.
The players’ association should have a central role in the process, but anyone who has followed the league in recent years knows the relationship between Goodell and Smith is more adversarial than congenial. It’s nothing like how their predecessors worked with each other. Previous union boss Gene Upshaw and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue could step into a room and come to a meeting of the minds in the best interest of the game. Not so with Smith and Goodell, and much of it stems from Goodell’s unwavering refusal to relinquish any of his power over player discipline.
Fact is, the league wouldn’t be in this situation today if there was an independent person/body handling player discipline. However Goodell has consistently refused to budge on the issue, particularly during labor negotiations in 2011. He likes being judge, jury and executioner. It takes some kind of ego to stand on the cover of Time magazine behind a block headline that reads: THE ENFORCER.
His grip is loosening now not because it’s something he wants to do, but rather because it’s something he has to do. He admitted Friday that “everything is on the table” as he moves forward with his plan to institute a new personal conduct policy by February. In fact, we’ve already seen some thawing. Just this week, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy were placed on the commissioner’s exempt list, which basically means they’re suspended with pay, according to multiple sources. The union was involved in the negotiations for each player and ultimately signed off — but only after receiving letters from the league that neither case could be used as precedent for player discipline. (In the past, the exempt list was used primarily for players transitioning back to the active roster following a suspension, so failing to get the letter would’ve provided teams with a means to violate the spirit of the list by giving them another disciplinary tool for players they didn’t want around.)
By agreeing not to fight the placement of Peterson and Hardy on the list, the union helped the league and those particular teams out of a tough spot; Peterson is facing charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child, and Hardy is appealing a judge’s conviction on two counts involving domestic violence. Theoretically, the cooperation of the union could help open the door to what the union has been seeking for years: neutral arbitration on player discipline. Privately, some owners have told me they don’t have an issue with it. The problem has been Goodell’s reluctance to cede any authority.
There’s no question the commissioner’s credibility is at an all-time low. He has said repeatedly that owners and management will be held to a higher standard, yet he failed to discipline Vikings owner Zygi Wilf after a judge ruled he was part of a group that defrauded a business partner; did not punish Browns owner Jimmy Haslam after Haslam agreed to pay $ 92 million in fines as part of a fraud settlement; and did not hold himself to the same standard he did the Saints’ Payton.
If Goodell had come out and acknowledged those failings and announced changes that would take him out of the disciplinary equation, Friday’s news conference would’ve had more substance and bought him time to come up with a comprehensive plan dealing with abuse issues involving league employees. But all I got from the 45-minute session was a feeling that it’s business as usual for the National Football League.