Roger Goodell has to go. You had to figure that at some point, his arrogant act would come back to get him, and that time has come, with his absolutely ridiculous, smug, all-for-the-show actions this week.
Anybody can screw up. If you really try, you can screw up as big as Goodell screwed up this Ray Rice investigation. But only somebody as overconfident as Goodell could keep screwing up after the world screamed at him for screwing up.
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If Goodell had a shred of respect for his customers, especially his female customers, he would have conducted a real investigation into his failure. He would have announced that he was hiring an outside firm to find out why the video of Rice’s punch never reached his desk (if, in fact, it never reached him). He would have made sure to get everybody’s side of the story -- every law-enforcement agency, the casino where Rice slugged his fianceé, even TMZ executives if it came to that.
He would have said, “We failed and we have to find out why.”
Instead, Goodell did what he usually does. He tried to control the media, win the news cycle and count the moments until his next kickoff. He assumed we would all stop caring because we love our fantasy teams so much.
What does Goodell say now?
He had better come up with an answer, because his ground is shakier than he thinks. Yes, Goodell has helped his billionaire owners get a lot richer, which is why people assume he is invincible. And yes, some well-known and powerful owners like the Patriots’ Robert Kraft, the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones and the Giants’ John Mara publicly and privately support him. But there are 32 owners in the league, and rest assured: Support for Goodell is not as close to unanimous as he wants you to think. Most of these owners have wives. Do you think they are happy right now?
You can’t fairly say that Goodell intentionally covered up Rice’s punch. We don’t know that. I’m skeptical he personally saw the video until this week -- he is not stupid. Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and head coach John Harbaugh are adamant that they had not seen the tape until TMZ released it that morning, and I absolutely believe them. This spring, the Ravens did what most NFL teams would have done: They deferred to the NFL to investigate this, and spoke privately about the Rice they knew.
You can say Goodell mostly cares about revenue, and you would have a point, but how much NFL revenue is really tied to Ray Rice? Rice is a very good player, but there are a hundred players in the NFL who are just as good. The league could have banned him a month ago with no ill effects.
We don’t know how the NFL botched this, but it clearly happened. Somebody in the NFL clearly had the video. ESPN’s Chris Mortensen said in July that “I’m told, from those who’ve seen the video, it wasn’t pretty. She attacks him -- we don’t know the reason why -- and he strikes her hard, and her head, according to sources I’ve spoken with, struck the rail inside the elevator and she was unconscious.”
Yes, that is exactly what happened. How come Mortensen knew that, presumably from a source in the league, and Goodell didn’t?
Goodell should have been kicking himself all week, and instead he kept stepping on his customers. He should have held a press conference, and took questions from all comers. Instead he and his handlers carefully chose a few media sources to get his message out. He told CBS “no one in the NFL, to my knowledge,” had seen the video, but he didn’t really bother to find out if that was true.
“That’s a fact,” he said.
No, it’s not.
Look, this is basic crisis management: When others are going to flog you, flog yourself first. Be contrite. Show remorse. Admit you don’t know everything and are determined to find out what happened. Goodell commissioned a 144-page report on Richie Incognito. He should have announced something similar this week. A humbler Goodell would have done that and survived, but a humbler Goodell wouldn’t be Goodell.
Other commissioners suspend players; Goodell releases open letters to them, publicly rebuking them. His Saints bounty investigation was another big show, and so was the line that haunts him in the league today: “Ignorance is not an excuse.” That is what he told Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton. He said they were responsible for knowing everything that happened in their locker room. Why doesn’t that apply to Goodell?
There may not be enough votes to get rid of him now, but ask yourself: Do the Saints want to give him the benefit of the doubt? How about other, quietly unhappy owners? The reality for a commissioner is that the constituents change slowly over time, and you have to keep winning them over. It happened in recent years in the NBA, where a slew of new owners changed the culture of the league and weren’t as enamored with David Stern.
One example: Sabres owner Terry Pegula just reached an agreement to buy the Bills. He probably won’t be inclined to thank Goodell for the last collective bargaining agreement, because those profits were factored into the price that Pegula paid. But Pegula knows that his commissioner is embarrassing the league.
Goodell should be gone soon. When he was elected, in 2006, the vote was officially unanimous. But like much of Goodell’s actions since, that was for show. He was stuck on 17 votes out of 31. (The Raiders’ Al Davis, the ultimate renegade owner, abstained on most ballots.) Finally it was clear that Goodell was going to win, so his vote total crept up, and then there was the ceremonial 32-0 vote to show solidarity.
Goodell’s support improved in recent years. But you can be sure it dropped in the last month, as NFL owners started to realize what so many others do: Roger Goodell is doing more harm than good.