Saturday, September 20, 2014

Roger, and out

CHANCES ARE pretty good your NFL fantasy football team is a mess right now. The chances are even better that if you’re a fantasy football commissioner, you’ve got a better handle on your players than the real NFL commissioner has on his.

At this point — in the wake of a near disaster of a press conference on Friday, the potential disaster of a new ESPN news story published hours after he spoke, and the conflicting actions of the last few months — you could probably stand in for the real commissioner, Roger Goodell, the man who currently presides over an institutional clusterf*ck of monumental proportions.

No fewer than five players are the latest poster players for a culture of spontaneous violence, self-serving front office statements and institutional self-protecrtion that defines the National Football League: Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens running back under fire since February for assaulting his wife in a hotel elevator; Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, indicted last week for felony child abuse after whipping his four-year-old son with a tree branch; Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, convicted in June of assault; San Francisco 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald, facing assault charges for attacking his pregnant fiancée in August; and now, the latest, Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer, arrested on Wednesday for, among other things, head-butting his wife and breaking her nose during a heated argument at home.

The five teams of those players — almost 15 percent of all the teams in the NFL — are also under fire, their managements in a defensive public-relations crouch; some of the league’s flagship corporate sponsors have raised objections, some even bailing out on long contractual agreements with the NFL, with others threatening to do the same; and the nation’s most lucrative professional sports institution faces nothing less than the gravest existential challenge in its 95-year history.

Bill Montel, commenting at The Huffington Post, nails it: “At this rate they'll have to cancel the Super Bowl due to lack of players.”

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So the timing couldn’t have been better for Goodell, the league’s $44 million-a-year commissioner, to set things right, if he could. Goodell emerged on Friday from the secret undisclosed location he’s been at since Sept. 10, the date of his last public appearance, to speak at a press conference in New York. There he announced a broad range of corrective measures intended to address the rash of domestic violence incidents that have rocked the league.

Repeating the mea culpas he’s made since the Ray Rice episode exploded on Sept. 8 — when a second, more damning video of Rice’s violent assault on his fiancée came to light — Goodell said “I am not satisfied with the way we handled it,” he said. “I made a mistake. I am not satisfied with the process we went through. I am not satisfied with the conclusion.”

“I got it wrong on a number of levels,” he said, “from the process that I led to the decision that I reached. But now I will get it right.”

Goodell followed with a series of forthcoming changes: a new personal-conduct policy for NFL players; an investigation to be headed by former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III; a partnership with the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a tie-up that will include financial and promotional support; a pledge to institute programs of education, training and domestic-violence victim support at all NFL teams; and a recognition “that domestic violence and sexual assault exists everywhere, in every community, economic class, racial and ethnic group. It affects all of us. These are problems we are committed to addressing.”

“Everything is on the table,” he said. “We can't continue to operate like this.”

Then, in an extensive Q&A session, Goodell was asked by Peter King of Sports Illustrated: “Do you still believe that, to the best of your knowledge, no one in the NFL office had seen the [second] Ray Rice video before it surfaced on TMZ?

“Yes,” Goodell said.

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LATER, WHEN pressed on his actions following the release of the two videos implicating Rice in the assault of his fiancée, Goodell said: “We suspended Ray Rice originally after seeing the first video. When the second video came out last week, that is when we increased our discipline because that was inconsistent with the information we had. It was new information.”

Hours later, in an exhaustive and deeply-detailed 7,000-word story, the Outside the Lines Investigative unit at ESPN provided the closest thing yet to a definitive chronology of the events swirling around the NFL since the Ray Rice domestic-violence incident on Feb. 15. Its variance from Goodellian lore, its departure from the league’s butt-covering script is and will be a problem for Goodell, the Baltimore Ravens, and the NFL.

In a meticulous month-by-month chronology, the story asserts that the Ravens and the league engaged in “a pattern of misinformation and misdirection” ever since the night that the Rice incident took place. A pattern that Goodell apparently played a part in.

Excerpts follow from the ESPN report by Don Van Natta Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenburg:
After the Feb. 15 incident in the casino elevator, Ravens executives -- in particular owner Steve Bisciotti, president Dick Cass and general manager Ozzie Newsome -- began extensive public and private campaigns pushing for leniency for Rice on several fronts: from the judicial system in Atlantic County, where Rice faced assault charges, to commissioner Goodell, who ultimately would decide the number of games Rice would be suspended from this fall, to within their own building, where some were arguing immediately after the incident that Rice should be released. 
The Ravens also consulted frequently with Rice's Philadelphia defense attorney, Michael J. Diamondstein, who in early April had obtained a copy of the inside-elevator video and told Cass: “It's f---ing horrible.” Cass did not request a copy of the video from Diamondstein but instead began urging Rice's legal team to get Rice accepted into a pretrial intervention program after being told some of the program's benefits. Among them: It would keep the inside-elevator video from becoming public. 
With his wife sitting by his side in a conference room, Rice told Goodell that he hit her and knocked her out, according to four sources. Cass and Newsome spoke on Rice's behalf. ...

Goodell told CBS News that, during the [June 16] disciplinary meeting, Rice provided an "ambiguous" account of what had happened inside the elevator. ...

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Four sources, however, told “Outside the Lines” that Rice gave Goodell a truthful account that he struck his fiancée. Furthermore, it would seem that if Rice had given an "ambiguous" account, sources say Goodell had even more incentive to try to obtain a copy of the in-elevator video to clear up any lingering questions. But he did not do that. "For you not to have seen the video is inexcusable," a league source told “Outside the Lines.” “Because everybody was under the impression that you had.”

On Sept. 10, The Associated Press reported that the NFL was sent a copy of the infamous Ray Rice inside-elevator tape by a law enforcement official back in April, despite Goodell’s assurances that no one at the league had seen it until Sept. 8.

The Associated Press reported that the official played the AP a 12-second voice mail from an NFL office number on April 9 confirming that the tape got to the league office, “and that a female voice expresses thanks and says: ‘You're right. It's terrible.’”

The league never followed up, the AP reported, citing the source. “We have no knowledge of this,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said later in a statement.

“No one in the NFL [saw the second video] to my knowledge,” Goodell told Norah O'Donnell on CBS This Morning, on Sept. 10.

It’s this apparently deliberate blind eye, this culture of plausible deniability, this willful ignorance of the league’s most pernicious problems that has infected and compromised the commissionership of Roger Goodell.

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ASKED THE inevitable question on Friday — had he considered stepping down? — Goodell said: ““I have not. ... I am focused on doing my job, and doing it to the best of my abilities. I understand when people are critical of your performance, but we have a lot of work to do. That’s my focus.”

That’s also the problem. His focus is myopic at best. Goodell, by turns defensive and apologetic in Friday’s press conference, revealed nothing less than an attempt at effecting damage control, one consistent with the actions of the steward of a risk-averse, multibillion-dollar tax-exempt quasi-oligarchy.

It was a display of the mindset that dwelled in the reversals of policy, operational opacity and blithe ignorance that have characterized the eight years of Goodell’s status as commissioner — and the eight years of the teams under his control. It was reflected in his comments Friday: All the calls for institutional reform, all the plans for new policies and programs ... everyone’s on the hot seat except him, everything’s on the table except the job of the man who helped make the need for those new policies and programs necessary in the first place.

The commissioner spoke Friday as though he were the only one, the only person who could do his job, as though everyone was replaceable except him, as though his field of expertise qualified him unconditionally to remain to make the changes he outlined. As though he and he alone had the inside track on correcting the deeply human and political problems in a deeply protective organization of professional athletes, despite never having played a down of professional football in his life.

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On Friday, the Ravens released a statement saying that the ESPN story “contains numerous errors, inaccuracies, false assumptions and, perhaps, misunderstandings. The Ravens will address all of these next week in Baltimore after our trip to Cleveland for Sunday's game against the Browns."

Pressing business ... right after business as usual.

That order of doing things perfectly distills the full-steam-ahead, protect-the-shield mentality of Goodell and the league he represents.

That’s why at this point, and his best stated intentions aside, Roger Goodell is as much the root of the problem as he hopes to be the achiever of the solution, and probably more.

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THE PROBLEM is, he’s continuing to treat this as an image problem,” said Terry O’ Neill, director of the National Organization for Women, interviewed Friday on ESPN. “He’s trying to diminish it, deflect, evade ... we believe it is not just about Ray Rice. Roger Goodell cannot credibly commit to making the kind of changes throughout the organization that we believe need to be made, and that’s why we believe he needs to go.”

“This is an endemic issue when it comes to the league office,” said Obafemi Ayanbadejo, a former Baltimore Ravens player, speaking Sept. 15 on MSNBC. “The bottom line is, his job is in jeopardy, and I’m not sure where he can go from here.

“It’s one thing to protect the shield; it’s another thing to hide behind it,” he said. “He’s let a number of people down, and I believe that the owners, behind closed doors, are discussing an exit strategy when it comes to Roger Goodell.”

That begins to be a solution for the NFL owners, despite their apparent resistance. It comes by honestly answering one devastating simple question: if the National Football League is serious about making serious structural changes on domestic violence; if its leadership and its billionaire owners really mean what they say about making a clean break with the past ... how better to do that, how better to show that to the public and the sponsors that are the league’s very oxygen, than by making a change in the symbol, the architect, the face of that past?

Image credits: Goodell: pool feed image. NFL logo: © 2014 National Football League. Janay and Ray Rice: Patrick Semansky/Associated Press. Elevator videos: via ESPN logo: © 2014 ESPN.

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