PHOENIX -- A year ago, Roger Goodell opened his State of the League address in New York by saying that he couldn’t control the weather for the game, at which point fake snow fell from the ceiling. It was the kind of joke you might tell at a rehearsal dinner if you were worried about offending the bride’s mother.
This year, he couldn’t even risk a joke.
Goodell announced that he was humbler, which is not the kind of thing that truly humble people normally announce. He also gave some logical answers, a few defensive answers, and he ducked his share of questions. This was all predictable. There was never any real hope that he would lose his temper or get stumped by a trick question. This was Goodell’s Super Bowl. He was ready.
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But there was one issue that hung over every question. Goodell’s lack of credibility affects everything he does, even when he does something right. It is this year’s version of fake snow, falling everywhere, except Goodell isn’t in on the joke.
When he says he will hire a chief medical officer, players are skeptical. It seems like another cheap public-relations move, whether it is or not. They would much prefer he cancel the league’s Thursday night package, because they say two games in five days destroys their bodies. But he won’t do that because it would cost money, and owners love money.
When Goodell says Saints owner Tom Benson is mentally fit to own a team, effectively taking a side in an ugly legal battle that promises to get uglier, is he sure? Or is he just covering for an owner again?
And consider this whole Patriots ball-deflating business. We don’t know what happened, though I imagine the NFL knows more than it is letting on.
Goodell should not have to appoint an independent investigator for a potential rules violation. He is the commissioner. This is his job. But people don’t trust Goodell to investigate this himself, so he has to call Ted Wells in from the bullpen.
Maybe the league really needs more than two weeks to investigate this simple violation … but it’s easy to wonder if this just a delay to avoid reaching a verdict before the Super Bowl. That way, if the Patriots are guilty, Goodell won’t be handing the Lombardi Trophy to a team that cheated to try to get there (even though the Patriots would have beaten the Colts anyway). He will hand the trophy to an accused cheater, which is not ideal, but still better than a confirmed cheater.
It’s hard to take Goodell at his word. His NFL has a significant history of appearing to push unhappy stories into the offseason. Last fall, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy and Ray Rice were all written out of the league’s TV programming for the duration of the 2014 season. After more than two years of allegations, publicly and privately, Goodell punished the Saints for their alleged bounty program in March 2012 (and suspended coach Sean Payton for a full season). Richie Incognito was suspended in Nov. 2013, and the report into his bullying was released in February.
People around the NFL are suspicious of the Patriots, and suspicious that Goodell is too close to Pats owner Robert Kraft to issue a fair ruling. This puts Goodell in an impossible spot. If he can’t show that the Patriots broke rules, he shouldn’t punish them -- suspicions are not grounds for a penalty. But if he doesn’t punish the Patriots, people will think he is covering for them. Remember when he destroyed the tapes after the Spygate affair?
This is where Wells, the independent investigator, comes in … except that Goodell’s last independent investigator, Robert Mueller, was asked to take a narrow focus to protect Goodell. So how can we trust this one?
This is Goodell’s world now. Owners like him and pay him an enormous salary. But the public has lost faith.
Goodell dismissed the idea he might resign, get fired or take a pay cut – things that would happen to most of us if we had the kind of year he did.
He also said he learned a lot from his visits to domestic-violence shelters last fall, after he botched the Ray Rice penalty, but even that smelled of public relations. Goodell is a smart man. I’m sure he was moved by his visits, but he didn’t need to visit a shelter to understand that spousal abuse is wrong. That’s not the issue. The issue is that he botched the Rice penalty, then lied about why. He said Rice was dishonest with him last summer. An arbitrator ruled against Goodell.
Goodell got unreasonably testy when CNN’s Rachel Nichols asked him a perfectly reasonable question about perceived conflicts of interest. This was a transparent reaction to Nichols embarrassing him with perfectly reasonable questions about the Ray Rice investigation last September. (Full disclosure: Nichols is a friend of mine. Goodell is not.)
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That exchange illuminated the fundamental disconnect between Goodell’s view of the past year and the popular view: Many of us think the NFL has institutional problems while the NFL thinks it has a public relations problem.
An institutional problem must be addressed. A cultural shift must take place, and that’s hard. But a public relations problem means there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the institution, or with the man running it. The problem is just perception. The NFL thinks it can fight that perception for a while, keep doing what it does, and pile up cash.
Why does the NFL believe this? Well, the Super Bowl is Sunday. Some people say it’s the most controversy-filled Super Bowl ever, at the end of the NFL’s worst year ever. And it is. But the TV audience could break records.