How TMZ (Nearly) Brought Down Roger Goodell

Roger Goodell enjoying less stressful times with John Madden. Photo Courtesy: Andrew Dallos
Roger Goodell enjoying less stressful times with John Madden. Photo Courtesy: Andrew Dallos

By C. Craig Patterson

Giants should be wary of the spotlight; their shadows may reveal them to be much smaller men.

The National Football League’s commissioner probably needs some aspirin this morning – and likely every morning for the foreseeable future. Roger Goodell, the leader of the largest and most lucrative sport in America, found  himself dead smack in the middle of one of the worst weeks of his life. Beginning on Sept. 9, a five-day flurry of round-the-clock news coverage nearly dethroned the single most powerful man in sports. And it all started with three minutes and 30 seconds of elevator security camera footage posted by TMZ.

When the dust settled the commissioner still had a job, but had shown his discomfort when the attention turned towards him. Goodell, once an unstoppable juggernaut now had become all too human and a website that was taken as a joke had become the more credible of the two.

To fully appreciate what TMZ was almost able to accomplish, we have to take a step back to get a better understanding of who Roger Goodell is and how he got to his position.

The son of a Rockefeller-appointed New York senator, Charles Goodell, Roger got his degree in economics and found a job as an intern for the NFL in 1982. The younger Goodell had a knack for making the league money. He was promoted several times before making an impression on then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Goodell then went on to oversee the league’s business ventures and did his job well; earning the respect of the league’s owners, who appointed him commissioner upon Tagliabue’s retirement.

From there, he did what he was elected for… grow the business. Over the next eight years Goodell solidified football’s dominance in the American economy; pushing TV ratings miles above expectations, opening the door to the film industry with the Kevin Costner movie Draft Day, and making the NFL a $10 billion a year company. If there were a way to increase revenue, the commissioner was exploring it.

The bottom line wasn’t the only place where Goodell was succeeding. He ruled the front office with an iron fist. It became routine to see the commish levying harsh penalties against those who ran afoul of the league’s guidelines. Illegal hit? Five-figure fine on your first offense. Substance abuse? Season-long suspensions. And then there was Ray Rice.

On Feb. 15, 2014 inside of an elevator at the former Revel Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., Rice pummeled then-fianceé Janay Palmer to the ground rendering her unconscious. Both were arrested and charged with assault and the normally quick-to-action administration of Roger S. Goodell waited nearly five months to make the misstep heard ‘round the world. Two games – a laughable suspension. The man who struck a woman and then dragged her limp body into a hotel lobby was given a shorter sentence than if he had taken a steak dinner from a booster while at Rutgers. Public outrage ensued, the recipient of Rice’s physical aggression married him a month later, and Goodell’s logic and motives were questioned. After some time passed, Goodell tweaked his domestic violence policy and the league seemed to have escaped the ordeal relatively unscathed. Then the morning of Sept. 9 arrived.

At 1 a.m. PDT, TMZ, the most popular gossip website in the world that was also responsible for the original Ray Rice footage in February, released the never-before-seen footage from inside the elevator. Video that displayed what most would agree was the definition of domestic violence. The grainy images showed the 5-foot-8-inch, 206-pound Ravens running back striking the much smaller Palmer and then casually standing over her body and looking into his phone after pulling her three-quarters of the way into the lobby; her legs askew.

The video emerged as if out of thin air. ESPN didn’t have it, NBC didn’t have it, CNN didn’t have it, the NFL claimed it didn’t have it, but the website better known for covering the rants of Kanye West did. Their team worked on the  story for seven straight months and refuse to reveal their confidential source, but one thing we did learn from TMZ’s investigation: Roger Goodell had some explaining to do. The “journalists” at a celebrity news site had unearthed what others could not and the sports world’s largest titan appeared to have been bested by the most unlikely of giant slayers. But how? If you knew TMZ’s recent history perhaps its role in the biggest NFL story of the past five years would have been less of a surprise.

The website named after the historic Los Angeles studio Thirty Mile Zone has had its hand on the pulse of celebrity news for quite some time now.

It boasts a top-rated site, popular TV show, bus tours, popular app and merchandise. It rewards handsomely for tips on the famous and infamous. All these things combined equate into a vast intelligence network that spans coast to coast comprised of people who are comfortable with giving them exclusive information. The ever progressive mind of managing editor Harvey Levin has capitalized on the public’s willingness to hand him secrets and launched TMZ Sports; vying for the same power over leagues and athletes that he holds over studios and actors.

In the past year alone, Levin and TMZ have broken the news on the sexual assault charges brought against Florida State quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist voice recordings, and the child abuse charges against Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. They have taken down a team owner and celebrated players, but never a league head. The Ray Rice video threatened to change that.

Roger Goodell, purveyor of punishments, had become target of some very real and very justified  interrogations. In just a week’s time Congress, journalists, and an internal investigation have scrutinized him. The same man who came down hard on New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton just a couple years ago for the now infamous bounty scandal even though Payton claimed to have had no direct knowledge of it was now pleading  ignorance himself. Goodell told the press and anyone who would listen that he had never seen or requested the tape and therefore could not have been held responsible. The public unanimously disagrees. Luckily for the commissioner, he keeps the owners very wealthy and they have no interest in changing that and by proxy, him.

He may have survived his worst personal public relations nightmare, but TMZ, like the rest of the country, has seen that he is a man with much to hide and everything to lose. TMZ will be ever vigilant awaiting his next misstep with its wallet open to pay whoever can give it the story first. So we shouldn’t be surprised to hear our favorite ESPN anchors and analysts, local sports columnists, and radio personalities direct us to stories that originate on the  familiar celebrity gossip site because the times have changed and TMZ has risen to become the watcher of the watchmen and has yet to find a giant too tall to be put under its spotlight.