The NFL has a serious crisis, and its roots can be traced to commissioner Roger Goodell.
Hailed as a moral crusader when he succeeded Paul Tagliabue in 2006, Goodell's tenure has been marked by perpetual controversy. The endless stream of negative headlines and criticism is not due to unfortunate timing or bad luck — it simply boils down to poor leadership.
Goodell's continued kowtowing to team owners and their interests has crippled any hopes he had of enacting positive change, and his wildly inconsistent disciplinary record for players has destroyed any claim to the moral high ground. The man who was touted on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the most powerful man in sports is anything but.
His discipline is inconsistent and arbitrary.
Last week, Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon's full-season suspension for violating stage three of the NFL's substance abuse policy was upheld. Gordon is unable to practice or participate in any team activities as part of his "indefinite suspension," from which he can apply for reinstatement after one calendar year. Under the terms of the policy, his barely positive test for marijuana was enough to warrant said punishment. If that sounds absurd and over the top, well, it is. And it's just the latest of many heavy-handed, misguided decisions made on Goodell's watch.
Which brings us to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. Rice was caught on tape earlier this year dragging his then-fiancee, now wife, out of an elevator after punching her unconscious. He was given a paltry and universally derided two-game suspension. Brandon Meriweather, a safety for the Washington Redskins (more on them later), recently was issued the same suspension for this hit.
Meriweather is a repeat offender, but in what world should knocking out a fully padded man on the field — sixth time or otherwise — be worth the same punishment as knocking out a woman off it — first time or otherwise.
The NFL and Goodell, in particular, screwed up — big time. In a memo sent Thursday to all 32 teams, Goodell seemingly admitted as much, a rare admission of blame the football's judge, jury and executioner.
At times, however, and despite our best efforts, we fall short of our goals. We clearly did so in response to a recent incident of domestic violence. We allowed our standards to fall below where they should be and lost an important opportunity to emphasize our strong stance on a critical issue and the effective programs we have in place.My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn't get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.
The memo outlined harsh new punishments for domestic violence, with an automatic six-game suspension for first-time offenders and a "lifetime ban" for any further offense.
Sounds promising. A step in the right direction, right?
The NFL has always had the ability to suspend any player for any number of games it sees fit for any infraction that falls under the Personal Conduct Policy umbrella, through which judgment can be rendered without explanation. Goodell very easily could — and should — have hit Rice with six weeks right off the bat. He had the chance to take a stand and didn't. Can't have Pro Bowlers missing too much time on the field unless it's for something really serious. You know, like weed.
And as for that oft-incorrectly reported "lifetime ban" for the second offense? It's actually just an "indefinite" suspension, the same one Gordon is currently serving for failing that second drug test. As Deadspin's Barry Petchesky pointed out, "at least hitting a bong is no longer worse in the league's eyes than hitting a woman; it's now equally bad."
This all seems part of a grander ploy to play morality police and shift blame to the players, while moving any responsibility away from the owners. Substance abuse is just the tip of the iceberg.
The more concerning example of Goddell's actions lies in his continued bungling of concussion-related issues.
He has created divides over the concussion issue.
Head injuries are inevitable. As modern medicine has revealed more on the true danger of head trauma, coupled with some of the highly publicized struggles (and even deaths) of former players, it's become clear that the NFL needs to change its policy. Players have lobbied for adequate post-playing career health care and pensions, things that would cost the league and its owners money.
Goodell's response has been to attack the players, not the game. The NFL insists against all evidence that concussions would occur less frequently if players would just shape up and "play the right way." So instead of common sense, we have more arbitrary penalties, fines and suspensions. Money out of the players' pockets, not the owners.
He has spurred controversy away off the field.
The effects of his failed leadership can be seen everywhere, even by non-fans. Just look at the mountain of bad press the league has received in the wake of the refusal to change the Washington Redskins team nickname to something other than an ethnic slur.
Owner Dan Snyder, one of the most universally despised people in the country, still sees the name as a valuable, marketable commodity, so it's staying. Goodell had an opportunity to show real leadership and strongarm Snyder into changing the name. He didn't. The almighty dollar won out again.
Doing the right thing and keeping the cash flowing aren't mutually exclusive in the NFL. Goodell's predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, consistently nailed both during his tenure. He presided over the NFL's ascent to the top grossing sports league in the U.S., expanding it from 28 to 32 teams. Everyone got rich, everyone was happy. But he also knew when to draw the line.
In 1993, the Super Bowl was going to be held in Arizona for the first time. That same year, Arizona (side note: of course) rejected the establishment of a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Tagliabue threatened to move the Super Bowl if the state didn't clean up its act up. They called his bluff, and rejected the holiday anyway. The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., hosted the game instead. Arizona ended up losing an estimated half-billion dollars in revenue.
In 2005, the owner of the New Orleans Saints was openly courting a move to a new city, and the brutal aftermath of Hurricane Katrina made packing up all the more tempting. Tagliabue stepped in and opposed a potential move at any cost, even to cities with fan bases twice the size. The Saints stayed put and became an instrumental — and inspirational — part of the city's rebuild.
The sad irony here is that Goodell was mentored by Tagliabue for over a decade, from his early days working for the NFL until his ascent to its highest levels of upper management. In this case, it's clear the apple has fallen quite far from the tree.