The NFL’s worst week in recent memory is being presented as the people’s case against Roger Goodell — and that’s both justified and a shame.
It’s justified because this is a long time coming for Goodell, who as NFL commissioner the last eight years has made himself the face of the league’s greed, arrogance, disregard for inconvenient information about head injuries, and, increasingly, an ignorance about fans’ intelligence regarding all of this.
Goodell and league executives have come by their defining arrogance quite honestly, because for the last two decades there hasn’t been a problem they haven’t been able to solve by the pure awesomeness of their sport. The predictable pattern goes something like this: A crisis presents itself, fans react, then a Sunday comes and we all forget.
But now we’re at week two of the NFL season, and the second calendar week in a row where the pervasive conversation among fans and football people has very little to do with the games or the sport.
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The outrage over Goodell’s incredibly thorough mishandling of Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancée, and now the reaction from Adrian Peterson being indicted for reckless or negligent injury to a child, is a direct result of a long-simmering distaste for the superiority and empty ethics that have come to represent Goodell’s leadership, and with it the NFL.
The NFL is going to keep making gobs and gobs of money, of course. Even with the Chiefs appearing to be in for a long season, and even in a game that virtually nobody outside the coaches and players and their immediate families believing they have a chance Sunday in Denver, the game will be, by far, Kansas City’s most-watched show on television this week.
But the backlash against the NFL is here, and it is real. We are in the early stages of the league’s forward momentum slowing, perhaps even plateauing, and we’ll remember Goodell’s vapid leadership on virtually everything that doesn’t directly tie into revenue as a major culprit.
Goodell and the team owners who pay him more than $40 million a year have only themselves to blame for this. Every bit of criticism and every bit of backroom pressure they get from sponsors will be justified.
But it will also be a shame.
A shame, because Goodell’s cluelessness and the league’s mistakes have taken away from a real opportunity to make the world a better place.
If the NFL were the cultural leader it wishes itself to be, it would’ve used the video of Rice knocking a woman unconscious to make a real statement against domestic abuse. If the NFL had the moral clarity it talks about in press releases and sound bites, it would’ve woken up to the crisis of men beating up women in time to take real steps in both education and punishment for 49ers defensive tackle Ray McDonald and Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy and whoever will soon become the next NFL player arrested for domestic violence.
The NFL has always been a bit patronizing to its female fans, acting as if a month of pink wristbands in support of breast-cancer research and selling pink jerseys qualifies as outreach.
We all — media, fans and NFL decision-makers — missed an opportunity two years ago when Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and then himself. This was the worst possible outcome of domestic violence, an innocent life lost, but the talk then centered much more on Belcher and head injuries.
The league still has a long way to go in learning about and helping to diminish the inherent risk of head injuries in football. And even if it has come too late, and motivated in large part by the wrong reasons, at least progress is being made.
In a better world, with better leadership from the NFL, this could have been a similar moment for domestic abuse.
America can’t un-see the video of Rice punching a woman with his fist so hard she’s knocked out, then standing over her without any apparent remorse before dragging her down a hallway like an old rug.
But there could’ve — should’ve — been something good to come out of it. The NFL is our country’s greatest platform, and the popularity of the league means that millions have been exposed to the gruesome, cowardly and debilitating act of domestic violence who otherwise would not have.
That exposure could’ve — should’ve — been the spark for real change, the way we’re starting to see it with head injuries in football.
What Rice did to his now-wife is uncomfortably common. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in three women have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner. Those acts often change the victim forever. Many of them die.
This has always been true. Men assaulting women they profess to care about has always been a far greater problem than we’ve been willing to admit. It ruins families, scars children and starts heartbreaking cycles of abuse. One of the most dooming parts is that domestic violence is among our country’s most underreported crimes. That’s true for a lot of reasons, including reluctance from victims to speak out — often because of fear — and a tendency for others to regard it is a personal matter.
The NFL’s power and the plain story told in that video could’ve helped change that. This could’ve been a seminal moment in our country’s tolerance for men beating up women.
Charges against Rice were dropped, a sign of how difficult it is to punish domestic violence, but the NFL could have been a leader here. A new policy against domestic abusers — six games for a first offense, up to a lifetime ban for a second — could’ve been presented as a strong statement instead of PR maneuvering.
Goodell’s incredible mismanaging — going too light in the beginning, whiffing on public sentiment and now what looks an awful lot like a bad cover-up — made all of that impossible.
Goodell has always talked in terms of protecting the shield — code for presenting a corporate-friendly image — and yet he’s done more than anyone else to tarnish America’s most popular sports league. The last week or so has been an efficient illustration of that, with his credibility and the confidence of those around him falling to near terminal levels.
Sports used to lead social change by being proactive, particularly with civil rights and gender equity. For many reasons, including increased profit-chasing, sports are now much more reactionary and slower to adjust. But at times like this, even a slow reaction can help bring real change.
With a more competent commissioner, the NFL could’ve been a leader in changing America’s attitudes and understanding of domestic violence. That should’ve been the story. Instead, this is all being discussed in the context of Goodell being in over his head.
He deserves all the criticism he’s getting, but the real shame is in what we’re not talking about.