If a Commissioner’s credibility and judgment is assassinated on Black Friday, does anybody hear it?
That’s the question everyone should be asking right now about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who saw his decision to indefinitely ban Ray Rice overturned by Judge Barbara S. Jones one week ago today. To be more accurate, though, his decision wasn’t just overturned; it was deemed “arbitrary and capricious,” a legal term essentially meaning “your judgment is complete bullshit.”
Here are a few salient, quick-hit quotes from Judge Jones’ ruling:
- “Where the imposition of discipline is not fair or consistent, an abuse of discretion has occurred.”
- “The indefinite suspension was an abuse of discretion and must be vacated.”
- “The imposition of a second suspension based upon the same incident, and the same known facts about that incident, was arbitrary.”
Judge Jones’ opinion is, for all intents and purposes, unassailable. She was appointed Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York by President Clinton in 1995. Anybody who knows the law can tell you that this is one of the most prestigious and important districts in the entire country; it includes New York City, which houses some of the world’s largest financial institutions.
Essentially, you’re best off accepting her word as law. If Judge Jones says that Goodell was completely wrong to indefinitely suspend Rice a second time, it's probably legally true.
Naturally, the next question has to be how and why did Goodell get everything with Rice so wrong? Is he—as Bill Simmons so bluntly put it—just a good old fashioned liar? Is he just completely incompetent at his job? Did he remain willfully ignorant even though there were about 15 ways he could have gotten the infamous interior elevator tape? Does it even matter?
Regardless of his true motivation, this wholly-botched and horribly-executed disciplinary process with Ray Rice has laid bare something we really have known for a while: Roger Goodell is not fit to serve as NFL Commissioner.
Judge Jones’ decision plainly shows the incredible failure of Goodell to competently complete a thorough and fair investigation. You don’t need to read into potentially ambiguous commentary to reach that conclusion; all you need to do is look at the facts pulled directly from the testimony Jones heard on November 5 and 6:
- “[The NFL] believed there was a second video from a camera inside the elevator. Various sources, including NFL security, had reported its existence. ... The NFL never asked Rice for the second video.”
- There were a total of 10 people at the June 16 meeting: Roger Goodell, Jeff Pash (NFL General Counsel), Adolpho Birch (NFL Senior VP of Labor Policy and Government Affairs), Kevin Manara (NFL Senior Labor Relations Counsel), Ray Rice, Janay Rice, Dick Cass (Owner of Baltimore Ravens), Ozzie Newsome (Baltimore Ravens GM), Heather McPhee (NFLPA Associate General Counsel), and Ben Renzin (Rice’s agent and childhood friend).
- Rice says he told Goodell: “’I hit her, [when] she was coming back towards me…and I hit her, and she went down and hit her head’…Rice demonstrated with his left arm how he hit Mrs. Rice that night, swinging it in an arc across his body with his hand open. More significantly, he testified that he had given the same demonstration at the June 16 meeting when he told the Commissioner about the events, making it clear that his arm ‘came across’ his body and hit her. Birch did not pose any questions to follow up on Rice’s description of the assault.”
- In her testimony, Janay said of her husband’s demonstration of how he struck her “that’s exactly what he did” at the June 16 hearing. She also added that “no one had asked [Ray Rice] for specific details about what went on in the elevator.”
- McPhee testified that Ray Rice said on June 16 that “’I hit her, and then she fell and hit her head on the railing,’” and that these were the same exact terms he had used with his own representatives when describing the incident.
- Goodell and Manara (who was the note taker) said that Ray Rice testified that he “slapped” Janay, who then fell and hit her head, which was what knocked her unconscious. Birch said that “I don’t know the word [Ray Rice] used.”
- “An analysis of the testimony together with the notes made contemporaneously by Commissioner Goodell, Birch, Manara, and McPhee leads me to conclude that Rice told the League that he ‘hit’ his wife and that he did not say that she ‘knocked herself out.’ The Commissioner’s notes are not detailed and do not contain any verbatim quotes of what Rice said happened in the elevator. They do not contain the word ‘slap’ anywhere…They do contain the word ‘struck’ at what appears to be the only entry relating to Rice’s statements about what happened in the elevator.”
- “Birch’s notes are even sparser, with the phrase ‘bottle service’ the only reference to the night of the assault. Manara’s set of notes is the only one that corroborates the NFL’s claims, but Judge Jones said that “I am not persuaded that his notes reliably report that Rice used the words ‘knocked herself out.’ McPhee’s notes contained actual marked off quotes and underlines for emphasis. “She was emphatic that Rice did not say that Mrs. Rice had ‘knocked herself out.’”
- “The testimony of Commissioner Goodell and Birch is further diminished by the vagueness of their recollections.”
- “Rice did not lie or mislead the NFL at the June 16 meeting…Rice did not mislead the Commissioner.”
- “That the League did not realize the severity of the conduct without a visual record also speaks to their admitted failure in the past to sanction this type of conduct more severely.”
It would almost be a relief if his mishaps were revealed to all be a calculated move by a guy who had a legitimate master plan.
How could a Commissioner seeking a fair, transparent disciplinary process in such a delicate matter blunder so badly? How is he not A) Recording the meeting either via audio, video, or both, and B) Taking detailed notes about what he’s hearing? These simple steps seem like really obvious and easy ways to ensure that if there’s any question after the fact, there is a clear and impartial record as to what transpired in the meeting. It’s mind-boggling to think that Goodell is making these massive decisions based purely on some hybrid of groupthink and a precedent of domestic violence discipline that everyone has agreed for years is too light.
While there’s no evidence to suggest that Goodell was being deliberately deceitful or insidious and making shady backroom deals, wouldn’t that almost be better than the alternative? The guy is making a reported $44 million dollars per year; do we really want to support a business where executives making this much money fail to take even the simplest common-sense measures to protect their integrity? It would almost be a relief if his mishaps were revealed to all be a calculated move by a guy who had a legitimate master plan.
Goodell has spent his entire tenure projecting an image of himself as a macho reformer who will be remembered as “the guy who cleaned up football and used tough love to take care of the players.” That’s a nice idea and all, but there's a fair chance if you took a poll of current and former players you’d find that they think basically the opposite of him. Despite the contrived nature of his “press conference,” Richard Sherman sure seemed like a voice of the players when he called out Goodell for his hypocrisy at every turn.
In Goodell’s mind, he's “protecting the shield.” He isn’t the Discipline Commissioner; he’s the PR Commissioner. And who in their right mind would spend $44 million per year on a PR person whose had his disciplinary authority subverted twice by independent reviewers? In addition to Jones’ decision last week, there was also the whole matter of “Bountygate,” wherein Goodell made such a mockery of the process that former commissioner (and Goodell’s mentor) Paul Tagliabue was called in to clean up his mess. In Tagliabue's decision, which led to him vacating many of the suspensions, the former commissioner called Goodell’s judgment into question by saying “the NFL's decision to suspend a player here for participating in a program for which the League typically fines a club certainly raises significant issues regarding inconsistent treatment.”
And going back even further, don't forget that with zero explanation, Goodell had all of the “Spygate” tapes from the Patriots destroyed. He told late senator Arlen Spector that he felt “it was the right thing to do,” because, you know, who would ever want to double check those or do a more lengthy investigation?
In what other profession would this be acceptable?
This isn’t even touching the comical “player safety” initiative, which levels huge fines at players for helmet-to-helmet hits, yet also forces them to play three games in 10 days and encourages them to embrace an 18-game regular season schedule.
It should be clear by now that Goodell’s failures as a commissioner are not just isolated events. How many times does the guy have to say he needs to “do better” before we start holding him accountable? In what other profession would this be acceptable?
Ultimately, it’s up to Goodell’s 32 bosses (the owners) to make something happen, and chances are they won’t. He’s making them far too much money for that to happen. For them, Goodell is a $44 million-per-year punching bag who absorbs public scorn and shaming, suffering for their sins so that they don’t have to. He is their scapegoat in a suit. Nobody doubts Goodell's ability to take a beating and act unaffected.
Like most businesses, money is at the heart of the decisions the NFL makes. If Goodell had any sense of professional pride, he’d step down immediately; it's hard to imagine someone doing such a disservice to the game and still feeling good about his legacy. But if you think that’s enough to get him out, you’ve grossly misinterpreted what “protecting the shield” really means.
Last season, NFL teams made a total of $6 billion in revenue. That’s billion, with a B. Divided by 32, that’s a $187.7 million check the league is cutting to each team. Don’t forget that those are only national revenue dollars; local revenue often exceeds $100 million as well. These numbers will grow, too, as next year the NFL and DirecTV’s new $1.4 billion per year TV deal will kick in. The owners aren’t going to fire a guy who is making them all those millions of dollars. And as for all that public pressure that was supposed to be a factor? Gone. Recent numbers suggest that the ratings are basically right where they were last year.
Goodell isn’t going anywhere. There’s no reason for him to get fired, the public doesn’t demand it, and the man himself is so deluded that he would never willingly quit. He may not be the Commissioner we want, but given how quickly we've moved onto other topics, he’s probably the Commissioner we deserve.