NFL's Credibility Hangs in Balance of Ray Rice Saga
The NFL hoped and expected that after a stellar opening weekend of exciting games, the first real football action in seven months, the football world would be abuzz with chatter about the action.
Good luck with that.
Now, thanks to a video surfacing from TMZ, negativity is in the air with the NFL’s credibility hanging in the balance.
Goodell in the spotlight
Primary to Roger Goodell’s stewardship of the NFL has been his singular emphasis on player conduct. As noted here often, the notion of a higher standard for player behavior, as archaic and quaint as it may sound, is central to his core beliefs. Until recently, his tenure has been defined by player conduct discipline often seen as overreaching and heavy-handed while coming from the “judge, jury and executioner.” Lately, however, and for reasons not entirely clear, that iron fist has been dissipating, punctuated by the initial handling of the domestic violence assault by Ray Rice.
Two weeks ago, in reacting to public scorn and chastisement from friends and advocacy groups, Goodell announced enhanced domestic violence suspensions. While lauded for “righting a wrong” (we can now call them “the Ray Rice rules”) Goodell appeared to be returning to his roots of taking a more stringent approach to conduct discipline. Now, after seeing the damning video, nothing is clear.
When the stepped-up domestic violence discipline was announced, I spoke with a top NFL executive and asked about any potential retroactive application to Rice, to which he responded, “No, that’s done.” Of course, it was far from done. The turbulence of this week makes the outrage of Rice’s initial two-game suspension seem benign.
As to the primary credibility question of whether the NFL had seen the damning video, I always try to stay measured and reserve judgment. However, I have seen NFL investigations up close in my time as both an agent and an NFL executive. In my experience, these investigations—which marshal league and team personnel as well as local law enforcement resources—are thorough, comprehensive and leave little to guesswork. For them to not have this key piece of evidence seems at best curious, perhaps shoddy or at worst unconscionable.
Although in his CBS interview Goodell tried to distance himself from operations such as TMZ by claiming his security would not procure evidence from "sources that are not credible" the ultimate goal is always the truth. And I think we would be naive to believe that NFL investigators have not called in favors from friends in law enforcement to seek out evidence to help uncover the truth.
We are at a moment in time in the tenure of Roger Goodell (which, by the way, I think is in zero danger of ending). He must restore some integrity and public trust in the brand. It is certainly not his nature to be expansive—he prefers bland and unrevealing comments—but some personal vulnerability here would, in my opinion, go a long way. Beyond a brief sit-down with Norah O'Donnell or statement from the league's public relations staff, we need to see a more personal Roger Goodell, the one behind the corporate facade. The customer base is looking for more than a commissioner here; we want to see a vulnerable person, a father of two girls, who admits to mistakes throughout this episode that he has learned from. That person is there, I have seen him. Now everyone else needs to.
The Ravens’ role
Earlier this summer, as public wrath came down on Goodell for light punishment of Rice, the Ravens, by comparison, skated. Not only did the team never discipline Rice for his actions before his sudden release Monday, but also they supported him unconditionally at every turn. To wit:
- Team president Dick Cass accompanied Rice to his meeting with Goodell.
- The team hosted the disastrous press conference under a Ravens banner while tweeting out “Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident."
- The team’s public relations director penned an ode to Rice on BaltimoreRavens.com.
I believe that support and political capital expended made a difference with Goodell’s discretionary discipline.
Ray Rice's actions and lack of remorse on that video did not look like that of someone involved in domestic abuse for the first time.
In meeting the media Monday night, coach John Harbaugh provided little transparency about their sudden change of course with Rice. That press conference was another misstep; he should not have been out there fielding questions about Ray Rice punching his wife in the same session as updating injuries for Thursday’s game. Dick Cass or owner Steve Bisciotti should be answering questions; they are senior leadership, not the coach. (Bisciotti did write a letter to fans on Tuesday evening, explaining how everything unfolded.)
Like the NFL, the Ravens deny having seen the damning video, although the same questions about willful ignorance persist. After swaddling him in unqualified support for months, they turned on him swiftly Monday. Now, with a jersey exchange made available to fans, they are scrubbing him from their team as if he was never there.
Although the transgressions are worlds apart, there are some questions here for the Ravens that I asked about regarding the Patriots and Aaron Hernandez last year. Both players were given top-of-market contract extensions from their team early in their careers, rewards usually reserved for select core players. As I found it curious that the Patriots would have no qualms about Hernandez’s off-field life in putting a $12 million bonus in his pocket, we are left to wonder what the Ravens knew about Rice’s behavior when they gave him $24 million guaranteed in 2012. His actions and lack of remorse on that video did not look like that of someone involved in domestic abuse for the first time.
I understand the Ravens’ releasing of Rice this week. As a Packer executive I remember discussing a couple players—although not as well known as Ray Rice—after serious transgressions and concluding that “there is no way in God’s green earth he will ever play for us again.” The question here, however, is why it took so long.
At best, the Ravens were completely conned by a player they sorely wanted to believe. At worst, they conned us.
As if on cue, the “Ray Rice Rules" teed up a case for the NFL (and the 49ers) right away. Ray McDonald was arrested days following the announcement of new rules on the charge of “inflicting injury on a spouse or cohabitant,” specifically his pregnant fiancée. Perhaps we would see the fresh new policy in action here? Nope. Despite the fanfare of tougher sanctions against domestic violence, there would be no swift action on McDonald.
Both Goodell and the 49ers stated that no penalty would attach to McDonald until his case had played itself out legally. While reasonable, this approach seems to mute the impact of what was announced two weeks ago, and more consistent with the softer and gentler Goodell. Earlier in his tenure, he would fine or suspend despite even an arrest, as done with players such as Pacman Jones and Ben Roethlisberger. Yet here, despite a fresh new policy, Goodell is laying up while McDonald lawyers up.
As for the 49ers, their adherence to due process is nice, but as with Rice, the NFL is not a democracy: were McDonald a down-the-line player without the leverage of his talent, I’m not sure they would be as concerned about due process.
Beyond the applause for the harsher penalties for domestic violence, the reality is that creative lawyering and delay tactics may take some bite out of the new policy’s bark.