Sept. 12 (Bloomberg View) — Ignorance is not a suitable defense.
That was what National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell told coach Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints when he punished them for so-called Bountygate two years ago, and it could come back to haunt him after the latest revelation by the Associated Press that the league had received the videotape of Ray Rice striking his fiancée back in April.
The NFL contends that it didn’t view the tape until it was leaked by TMZ on Monday, and has launched an “independent investigation” into the league’s handling of the evidence, led by former Federal Bureau of Investigation director Robert Mueller. “Independence” is in the eye of the beholder, though: While Mueller has an impressive résumé, he works for the law firm that negotiated the NFL’s multi-billion-dollar television deal with DirecTV. In addition, the inquiry will be overseen by New York Giants owner John Mara and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney — two of the most respected and publicly visible owners in football, but both have been supporters of Goodell’s tenure, and yesterday Mara dismissed the idea that “the commissioner‘s job is now in jeopardy.”
It’s pretty hard to see this as little more than public-relations scrambling, an attempt to make it look like the NFL is doing everything it can to get to the root of its own incompetence. If anything, the investigation just buys the league some time and space, in the hopes that whenever it concludes the public will have moved on.
It’s also a sign that the owners are sticking by their commissioner despite increasing calls for his resignation. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft maintains that Goodell had “no knowledge” of the video, while Miami Dolphins owner Steve Ross told Bloomberg’s Betty Liu, “Roger is not a liar.” For now, the men to whom Goodell answers have faith in their guy.
And why wouldn’t they? He’s made them a lot of money since taking the reins eight years ago. The NFL brought in $9 billion last year, and Goodell has pledged to up that number to $25 billion by 2027. The owners have shown their appreciation to the tune of more than $44 million, Goodell’s salary in 2012.
But even if Goodell were to go, it’s hard to believe that would result in any lasting change, given just how much power these 32 owners and their sport wield. There’s no reason to think this latest scandal will do anything to prevent the football machine from continuing to churn out the dollars: One major advertising partner, Verizon, has already stated its continued support for Goodell.
So you’ll excuse me if I don’t have the highest hopes for this investigation? What I do hope, however, is that it sheds light on the most utterly baffling part of this whole affair: Why would the NFL go through all this trouble just to protect Ray Rice? Goodell hasn’t been shy about throwing the book at players — just ask James Harrison –what made this a special case?
Perhaps this was just “protecting the Shield” gone awry, a result of the kind of hubris that comes from the notoriously image-conscious league seeing its past indiscretions go largely unchecked. When the Rice incident happened back in February, the NFL was still trying to settle its concussion lawsuit while dealing with the Richie Incognito bullying case. In fact, investigator Ted Wells’s report on the Miami Dolphins’ locker room was published the day before Rice’s arrest. Maybe the league felt the need to deflect yet another story that would cause fans to question the ability of players to compartmentalize an inherently violent game and the kind of dangerous masculinity in inspires. (Mission unaccomplished: CBS’ James Brown addressed exactly this in a powerful statement during last night’s Thursday Night Football coverage.)
I can’t quite figure out why the league would think a two-game suspension to Rice would accomplish this, but every step it has taken since has clearly been in the interest of controlling the narrative. It’s not a stretch to think that everything, from initial reaction to the suspension to the apparent cover-up, has been about steering the conversation away from the NFL’s larger, existential issues.
Or maybe Goodell’s judgment was simply clouded by his power, derived from the league’s seemingly endless stream of cash and unflinching popularity. It’s an overwrought metaphor, but this entire affair seems so utterly Nixonian. You can almost picture Goodell saying, “When the commissioner does it, that means it’s not illegal.”
Whatever the reason, let’s hope this investigation can at least help us answer the question of just what the league was thinking. Because even in the unlikely event that Goodell loses his job, the idea that nothing’s above the Shield would remain in office.