By Mark Miller
Open mouth, insert foot, chew vigorously. That’s what National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell keeps doing, especially after being grilled by the national media at a press conference Sept. 19 in a New York City hotel.
Arriving 15 minutes late, the embattled Goodell spent much of the 45-minute session apologizing for how he initially handled the Ray Rice domestic abuse incident in a former Atlantic City casino/hotel. When asked if he ever considered resigning, he brushed off the suggestion. Queried about the owners firing him, he said it was a hypothetical question.
What Goodell failed to do was the one thing he could have to rebuild some trust with the fans and sponsors. He didn’t discipline himself.
Here’s a guy who reportedly earned $44.2 million in annual salary, bonuses, and other compensation last year and didn’t offer to donate $1 million or so of his own money to domestic abuse causes. Couldn’t he and the owners have worked it out to at least suspend him for a month without pay and have someone else do his job?
Apparently when someone like Goodell helps earn the league $10 billion a year, the answer is no. Maybe in the interest of protecting women and children, the NFL needs to lose its status as an unincorporated non-profit trade association that pays no income tax because it technically doesn’t make a profit.
But you might be one of those sports fans who just want the games to be played. Perhaps you’d rather not have to hear about or form an opinion on what’s happening off the field? You’d then be in the 86 percent who in a recent poll said what’s been happening in the NFL will not affect their choice to watch games and see how their fantasy teams fare.
And if true, how can you in good conscience turn a blind eye to an organization that might seem more intent on protecting its precious brand than innocent peoples’ lives?
The Rice and Adrian Peterson cases are among 24 domestic violence cases involving NFL players in recent years. While arguably the most high profile recent off-the-field incidents, they are far from the only ones as this quick look at some others suggests:
• Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was suspended six games and fined $500,000 for violating the league’s personal conduct policy when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of driving while intoxicated.
• Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker originally was suspended for four games for violating the league’s performance enhancing substances policy for using amphetamines.
• Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent was suspended 10 games after serving time on his manslaughter charge in the death of teammate Jerry Brown Jr.
• San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith was suspended nine games for off-field legal issues.
• Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon was suspended for 16 games for repeated marijuana test failures.
These “crimes” follow the 2012 bounty scandal against the New Orleans Saints in which head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire season. All penalties were handed down by NFL czar, we mean commissioner, Roger Goodell.
Maybe that pattern of inconsistency shouldn’t be surprising in light of Goodell’s handling of a more serious situation with Rice. This summer, several months after an initial security video showed Rice dragging his unconscious then-fiancée, now wife Janay Palmer through a hotel elevator, the Baltimore Ravens star running back only received a two-game suspension. Early in September, Goodell changed that to an indefinite ban after the release of a TMZ video showing Rice actually striking Palmer.
The league has yet to levy any punishment against Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers and Ray McDonald of the San Francisco 49ers who also are facing ongoing domestic violence cases. Fortunately the Panthers took matters into their own hands by deactivating Hardy for their Sept. 14 game, the same action the Vikings did the same with Peterson who has been charged in a child injury case. The 49ers, however, allowed McDonald to play. While Hardy already has been convicted of his charges, Peterson and McDonald have yet to go to a trial. Surprisingly, all are still being paid.
Add in the proposed $765 million settlement with former players relating to concussions and other head injuries and it’s been quite a two years for the league and Goodell.
But if you think questionable decisions are new for the NFL, think again. Beloved Commissioner Pete Rozelle regretted his initial choice to play games two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
Rozelle also had to deal with drug scandals in the 1980s but is credited with elevating the NFL to its current status. When he became commissioner in 1960, there were 12 teams and overall attendance was 3 million. When he retired in 1989, there were 28 teams with combined attendance of 17 million. The NFL Properties and NFL Charities divisions started on Rozelle’s watch.
Under Rozelle’s successor, Paul Tagliabue, television contract revenues skyrocketed and six new franchises were introduced to six different cities and initiatives to increase the number of minorities in key league and team management positions was instituted.
Following Rozelle’s admitted mistake of playing games two days after the Kennedy assassination, Tagliabue canceled the entire slate scheduled the weekend after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He also was praised for helping institute the strictest substance abuse policy in professional sports.
Criticisms of Tagliabue centered more around football and business issues including relocation, expansion, revenue disparity, strict rules on taunting and other actions that brought some fans to call the NFL the “No Fun League.”
But that was about as controversial as it got under Tagliabue. There were no player strikes or lockouts during his tenure. There were few, if any, off the field troubles with players and team officials.
The same can’t be said for Goodell. Though since taking over in 2006 he has emphasized safety, problems have clouded his tenure nearly since the beginning. These started with significant off-the- field transgressions that led to the announcement of the NFL Personal Conduct Policy in 2007. That same year he disciplined the New England Patriots and coach Bill Belichick for trying to videotape the defensive signals of the New York Jets known as Spygate. There also were the 2011 player and 2012 referee lockouts.
So maybe, just maybe, we should have seen something like what’s been happening lately coming.
With weekly rosters of 53 players and practice squads of 10 more, the National Football League easily features more players than any other major professional sport. That’s more than 2,000 highly-paid athletes playing a very violent sport. If even 1 percent of them mirrored the ills of society in general, there would be at least 20 major incidents each year.
In short, the big stage of professional sports magnifies what happens every day throughout the country and no sports stage is bigger than the NFL.
Amid all the recent turmoil, there’s been a variety of reactions. Mark Stevens, marketing CEO for MSCO, said on a recent CNBC interview that Goodell shouldn’t lose his job because of what he means to the brand.
“When you have a brand in turmoil, if he leaves, you have even more turmoil,” Stevens said. “All brands have ebbs and flows. We’ve seen a lot of ebb and flows in the NFL in recent years. If he goes, the issues going around the NFL are not going to go away. It’s a unique situation and to inflate the issue now will be dramatic for the brand. In two weeks, this will not be a story.”
Mark Epner, a former federal prosecutor, had a different take.
“In two weeks he no longer will be the commissioner of the NFL,” Epner said. “There are two possibilities. Either he lied or he was very economical with the truth when he said he and his front office hadn’t seen the video. If it was a consultant who saw the video, he should be fired for hiring that consultant.
Boy were both of them wrong.
Former NFL player and now ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth said the league let he and other former players down along with every fan, coach, and current players.
ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith said even though he believes the league lied about the second tape, Goodell shouldn’t lose his job.
ESPN’s Skip Bayless had a different take when he said “this commissioner didn’t drop the ball; he chose not to pick the ball up in this situation. It was willful negligence. The league tried to steer clear and not get involved in domestic violence cases.”
ESPN’s Keith Olbermann said all included should resign from the Atlantic City police to Ravens officials to the NFL. He said everyone is covering up the incident.
The women’s advocacy group UltraViolet took its views to the skies above four stadiums, most notably MetLife Stadium in New Jersey before the New York Giants-Arizona Cardinals game. Its flying banner there stated “@UltraViolet: #GoodellMustGo.”
Believe it not, there actually were Ravens fans interviewed before the Sept. 11 game against Pittsburgh who thought Rice was the victim because he was defending himself after his now wife hit him. One even said he was an upstanding person in the Baltimore community.
You cannot be serious?
Jena McGregor of the Washington Post noted the dramatic leadership contrasts of Goodell and National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver, who was praised for how he handled the Donald Sterling situation with racism.
McGregor pointed out how Goodell has made his decisions in reaction to public opinion and additional information. Silver was decisive and proactive with his choices.
That certainly differs from the way Goodell has made many of his disciplinary decisions.
Despite all the negative vibes, some positive things have occurred. For example, Google Trends reports the most attention to domestic violence in nine years. Also, the National Domestic Violence Hotline asked visitors how the news about Rice affected them.
The recent issues also appear to have opened some dialogue among NFL owners on what future action to take. It has been reported that at least five want Goodell out for the good of the league. But it would take another 17 owners agreeing with them to oust the current commissioner and that’s unlikely to happen.
One owner who needs to go is Baltimore’s Steve Biscotti, along with his team president Dick Cass, and general manger Ozzie Newsome. After hearing about the Feb. 15 incident in the casino elevator, they did everything they could to convince both the NFL and Atlantic City police to be lenient on Rice, the face of the franchise for six years.
About the only person who didn’t have that opinion it has been reported was head coach John Harbaugh who immediately wanted Rice cut. He was overruled by his bosses.
Even some of the league’s highest-profile sponsors weighed in:
• Pepsi-Cola, which has a $100 million deal with the NFL, said in a Twitter statement “Domestic violence is completely unacceptable. We are encouraged to see the NFL is now treating this with the seriousness it deserves.”
• Campbell’s Soup Company said “Domestic violence is abhorrent. We are watching developments closely and look forward to the findings of the independent investigation underway. Upon completion of the investigation, we expect the NFL to take appropriate action. We have shared our views with the NFL.”
• Then there was Proctor and Gamble which on Sept. 19 canceled an on-field breast cancer awareness promotion with the NFL. “The brand has decided to cancel on-field activation with NFL teams,” said spokesman Paul Fox in a statement. “Domestic violence is completely unacceptable and we have strongly urged the NFL to take swift and decisive action to address this issue… Our decision to cancel this on field activity was related to this ongoing issue.”
Since it appears Goodell will not resign and it is unlikely he will be fired, the ultimate decider of his fate may come down to sponsors. If more act like Proctor & Gamble and pull away from the league, he’ll be in trouble. If they like the future changes in policy, he’ll likely still be around.
No matter what, to truly maintain its brand and grow a great relationship with its fans, sponsors and others, the NFL can’t maintain the status quo. Analyzing, changing, and implementing a new personal conduct policy by the Super Bowl in February is a start. Stripping Goodell of his powers as disciplinary judge, jury and executioner would be another.
Let’s hope the NFL takes it a step further by creating the first true domestic violence policy in major American professional sports and enforce it to the letter.
Now that would be a real way to improve your brand.