Keep Doing the Right Thing, Roger
It’s the first time that’s always the most difficult. But the good news is, it gets easier the more you do it. When it comes to admitting a mistake, like with anything else, practice makes perfect.
Perfection, of course, is not a reasonable expectation for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Or any of us. But now that Goodell acknowledged fumbling the league’s response to Ray Rice’s domestic violence incident with a mere two-game ban—addressing one of the most glaring errors in judgment in his eight-year tenure with a straightforward “I didn’t get it right”—the obvious question is: Why stop there?
It was a great first step when the NFL substantially stiffened its code of punishment for domestic violence, and Goodell has been almost universally applauded for righting an obvious wrong and sending the strong message that should have been sent in the first place. But there is more work to do. And plenty more hot-button issues that could benefit from similar “make-it-right” treatment.
In all fairness, I think Goodell largely got it right by suspending Colts owner Jim Irsay for six games and fining him the maximum $500,000 following his March arrest for driving while impaired. But that edict shouldn’t fool Goodell into thinking his heavy lifting is now done. I’ve put together a handy Roger-do list, highlighting three pressing NFL topics that could use some course corrections from a commissioner who ought to bring the power and presence of his office to bear on these situations as he did last week to address domestic violence.
His glaring error of Ray Rice’s punishment acknowledged, Goodell has already done the hardest part. But if he truly wants to keep getting things right, his next mistake in judgment would be stopping right there.
It’s time we hear and see more from Goodell on the following:
1) Bring some sense of modernization to the league’s collectively bargained but woefully outdated drug policy regarding marijuana use.
When Browns receiver Josh Gordon receives a draconian year-long suspension for barely failing a test for a recreational drug that has been legalized in two of the 22 states in which the NFL does business—Colorado and Washington—it leaves the NFL open to charges of lacking perspective and appearing heavy-handed. Despite Gordon being a repeat offender of the league’s marijuana policy, there have been obvious cultural changes, and it’s time the NFL starts acknowledging and reflecting those shifts in public opinion about the liberalization of the drug’s use.
Given Gordon’s previous track record with positive drug tests, the Browns have every right to be disappointed in his lack of responsibility, but suspending him for an entire year in the prime of his career is over-the-top punishment by the NFL. Goodell knows this policy has lost credibility and is becoming more outdated by the year, and the league should not wait until the CBA expires in 2020 to begin bringing marijuana testing standards and punishments in line with current realities.
In the short term, Goodell should be bold enough to revisit Gordon’s suspension (which was handed down by NFL appeal hearing officer Harold Henderson) at some point before all of Gordon’s 2014 season is lost. Precedent be damned. The commissioner initially claimed to be adhering to precedent after issuing Rice’s light two-game suspension, before he wisely abandoned that gambit in the face of increasing public pressure and condemnation. He should do so again, even if the letter of the law in the league’s substance abuse policy calls for Gordon to sit out an entire year.
2) Provide leadership on the racially charged and bitter debate surrounding Washington’s team nickname.
Goodell can see how opposition to the nickname has increased over the past three to four years, how the issue is trending, and I believe he knows that Washington team owner Daniel Snyder is on the wrong side of history. But the commissioner keeps sitting on the fence and trying to buy time with words of understanding to those who feel offended, instead of taking action to address their concerns.
Ignoring the topic won’t make this troubling matter go away, and it is a significant problem for Goodell’s league if a significant number of people in the country consider the nickname to be a racial slur. No matter how you want characterize the size of the forces who argue for or against changing Washington’s nickname, no credible observer can dismiss those who oppose the R-word as being insignificant in number. (Got that, Mike Ditka?)
WHAT’S IN A NAME? The Battle of Washington
As the years pass, standing behind Washington’s nickname for the sake of tradition and team history is going to be a tougher and tougher sell. As times change, so do perceptions and traditions. Rookie hazing was a tradition not all that long ago. Things like lax player safety practices, and turning a blind eye to workplace conduct issues were once widely accepted. Those changes in football were largely driven by Goodell in recent years, and he’s deluding himself if he doesn’t consider this issue another example of where the game falls short of the “culture of respect” he has tried hard to cultivate and promote.
The irony is, Goodell is understandably proud of telling the story about how his father, a Republican U.S. Senator from New York in the late ‘60s, stood up to his own party and the Nixon White House to oppose the war in Vietnam. It was a principled move that almost certainly cost Charles Goodell his political career. While the debate over Washington’s nickname cannot even remotely be equated with life-and-death issues such as war, I can’t help but notice that Roger Goodell seems hesitant to take a principled stand against even the unpopular owner of Washington’s football team. The comparison is not favorable to the commissioner.
3) Abandon the quest for an 18-game regular-season schedule.
I’ve made my case before about why Goodell’s campaigning for an 18-game regular season doesn’t jibe with the league’s player health and safety initiatives—and why it needs to go away for the good of the game. But 18 games is still hanging out there in suspended animation, not fully alive, but not quite dead either. If the commissioner wants to “get it right” on another vitally important issue, he should start listening to players who strongly oppose lengthening the season (even when the NFL floats the unwieldy compromise of each player only being allowed to play in 16 of 18 games).
If the players are the league’s greatest resource—and make no mistake, they are—then Goodell should heed their concerns and drop his quiet push for adding another two games. Added revenue shouldn’t justify everything the NFL considers and does, and the long-term quality of players’ lives should be put before any dollar amount.
The commissioner maintains that 18 games would be great for fans, but he oversees a league that hasn’t fully fixed the practice of robbing fans with the ticket prices of meaningless and largely star-less preseason games, or ceased holding them hostage with an antiquated TV blackout policy born in the early 1970s. The blackout policy is under attack from the FCC these days, exactly because it is a legalized ploy that allows the league to put the squeeze on NFL markets (read: fans) with an eye on nothing more than enriching its bottom line. Forgoing 18 games is simply the right message to send, just like his better-late-than-never conversion on the domestic violence issue.
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The NFL’s new season kicks off Thursday night, but Goodell would do well to keep his attention focused on issues like these in the days ahead. If he wants to do more than just the owners’ bidding, he could build upon his momentum from last week and make amends on other fronts that need fixing.
With his first difficult step taken, and his glaring error of Ray Rice’s too-lenient punishment acknowledged, Goodell has already done the hardest part. But if the NFL commissioner truly wants to keep getting things right, his next mistake in judgment would be stopping right there.