It was a case in which Roger Goodell put forth discipline before he had all available evidence, was put under severe scrutiny when the punished transgressions blew up in his face and ultimately had to answer questions (truthfully or not) about his investigative process. And because Goodell acts as the league's judge, jury and executioner, and there is no independent arbiter for severe disciplinary matters, the NFL took a black eye for Goodell's mishandling of the matter.
No, we're not talking about the Ray Rice scandal. We're talking about SpyGate, and how little Goodell has learned about the power of objective administration during his time in office. In 2008, when the New England Patriots were docked a first-round draft pick and a total of $750,000 in fines to owner Robert Kraft and head coach Bill Belichick for the practice of illegally videotaping opponents, the league also allegedly destroyed the tapes the Patriots gave to the league, declaring the discipline appropriate and the matter closed.
Not everybody was convinced. Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter called for Senate judiciary hearings on the SpyGate matter because he believed that the NFL's investigation was not only flawed but constructed in a system where objectivity was impossible.
"I have documented the strong factual case that a NFL investigation was neither objective nor adequate," Specter told ESPN.com in May 2008. "If the commissioner doesn't move for an independent investigation, then there will be a permanent black mark on the NFL and the Patriots' record will be historically tainted. Depending on the public reaction, I may ask the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on the NFL antitrust exemption."
In the end, Goodell never did call for an independent investigation, and Specter never had his hearings. The two men met in February 2008, and Goodell told Specter at that time that the punishment was in line with the Patriots' violations of league policy. Basically, Specter heard the same "Move along, nothing to see here" that we've all received from the league since TMZ released the tape showing Ray Rice dragging his wife from a casino elevator in February.
Specter talked for a few more months about hearings but eventually moved along.
"I haven't pulled back," he said through his office that June. "There's not much more I can do at this point. We've exposed a lot. ... But the public attention span is so limited. I'm not going to call for hearings because the mood is not right and we've got too many other bigger problems to deal with."
But what Specter said on the Senate floor in 2008 was chillingly similar to what people have been saying about the NFL for the last week.
“On the totality of the available evidence and the potential unknown evidence, the Commissioner's investigation has been fatally flawed. The lack of candor, the piecemeal disclosures, the changes in position on material matters, the failure to be proactive in seeking out other key witnesses, and responding only when unavoidable when evidence is thrust upon the NFL leads to the judgment that an impartial investigation is mandatory."
And when several owners (including Kraft) came out in support of Goodell as the events of the past week unfolded, it rang hollow because of the perception that Goodell and the team owners were all in the same boat. Back to Specter's comments to the House in 2008:
"There is an unmistakable atmosphere of conflict of interest or potential conflict of interest between what is in the public's interest and what is in the NFL's interest. The NFL has good reason to disclose as little as possible in its effort to convince the public that what was done wasn't so bad, had no significant effect on the games and, in any event, has all been cleaned up. Enormous financial interests are involved and the owners have a mutual self-interest in sticking together. Evidence of winning by cheating would have the inevitable effect of undercutting public confidence in the game and reducing, perhaps drastically, attendance and TV revenues."
Goodell only convened an independent investigation into the Rice matter when things had backfired so badly that people across the country were calling for his head. And when he did call for that investigation, he appointed Robert Mueller III, a former FBI director who now works for a law firm that has represented the league in its negotiations with DirecTV, and chose two owners (Steelers owner Art Rooney II and Giants co-owner John Mara) to oversee the process. Rooney and Mara are perhaps Goodell's closest advisors and mentors, and one day before the investigation was announced, Mara released a statement in which he said that any talk about Goodell losing his job was "misguided."
Oh, and WilmerHale, the law firm in question, also employed current Ravens president Dick Cass for over 30 years. So, at a time when public support for and belief in the commissioner's office was at an all-time low, Goodell did what he usually does -- he cavalierly assembled a dog-and-pony show and assumed America would be sated, its love of football overwhelming any doubts about the sport's overall integrity.
Because there's almost no way this investigation can truly be independent when everyone involved has a stake to some degree in the NFL's continued financial success, we may never know what Goodell knew and when he knew it. But I don't think it's the specifics of the Rice matter that have so many people up in arms. It could be anything, from SpyGate to BountyGate to ConcussionGate to WhateverTheNextThingIsGate. What has people worried about the future of the game is that it's run by a man who is either a functionary of the owners or a leader who has let his power run amok. Or an unholy mixture of both.
Whatever the case, Goodell has proven one thing since 2008: He only responds with clarity when necessary, and the words he uses are empty. Because no matter what hits the NFL takes, Goodell has shown through his actions that he learns nothing from the process.