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Where Does The NFL Go From Here?

One of the darkest weeks in NFL history continued on Friday; judging by the details of the report of what Adrian Peterson did to his four-year old son, perhaps escalated is a better description.

Peterson. Ray Rice. Greg Hardy. Ray McDonald. The biggest stories of the 2014 season have been about domestic violence. This, after the Richie Incognito-led bullying effort in Miami dominated parts of the 2013 season. And it’s not as though the Jovan Belcher and Aaron Hernandez stories are in the distant past, either.

I don’t know exactly how many fans are questioning what the hell is going on with the NFL. I know I am. Here’s what Mike Tanier had to say earlier this week, identifying exactly why Rice was indefinitely suspended from the league.

Ray Rice’s primary job was never to carry footballs, score touchdowns, win games or lead his team to the Super Bowl.

Ray Rice’s primary job was to make us feel good about spending three hours per week watching Ray Rice.

The Ravens and the NFL finally acted because no one wants to watch Ray Rice play football, making him a liability in the football-watching marketplace.

Ray Rice is now associated with punching his wife. Not touchdowns, Super Bowls or fourth-down miracles, but punching his wife. Thanks to all of his machinations, the association stuck, and the sleazy cover-up is now stuck atop the act itself.

Ray Rice can no longer make us feel good about watching Ray Rice. He makes us feel nauseous. He does not fill us with wonder or excitement. He fills us with dread and regret. Rice makes us feel foolish for reserving judgment, giving him the benefit of the doubt or showing any faith in “due process.” For Rice, those were all just tools of deception; our benefit of the doubt was used, like a sloppy tackler’s own momentum, to send us tumbling. No one wants to spend Sunday afternoon feeling nauseous, foolish and regretful.

Tanier’s point is spot on: at the end of the day, we don’t want to feel nauseous, foolish, or regretful when watching football. This is why Riley Cooper needed to go away for a few days and issue a public apology; he also needed the public support of his black teammates, because otherwise, we weren’t going to feel good about watching Riley Cooper. Had Mike Vick not gone to jail, we weren’t going to feel good about watching him, either.1 We don’t, and shouldn’t, expect NFL players to be perfect. But we do expect them to be punished for their mistakes before we’re expected to feel good about watching them again.

The U.S. legal system is both one of the most incredible legal systems ever created and woefully inadequate. There’s a gap between “not guilty” and innocent; as it turns out, wealthy celebrities are capable of driving trucks through that gap. A tipping point occurred in 2007, when Pacman Jones and Chris Henry became the catalysts for Roger Goodell’s implementation of the league’s new personal conduct policy. In Goodell’s words:

Illegal or irresponsible conduct does more than simply tarnish the offender. It puts innocent people at risk, sullies the reputation of others involved in the game, and undermines public respect and support for the NFL.

While criminal activity is clearly outside the scope of permissible conduct, and persons who engage in criminal activity will be subject to discipline, the standard of conduct for persons employed in the NFL is considerably higher. (emphasis added) It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime. Instead, as an employee of the NFL or a member club, you are held to a higher standard and expected to conduct yourself in a way that is responsible, promotes the values upon which the league is based, and is lawful.

Persons who fail to live up to this standard of conduct are guilty of conduct detrimental and subject to discipline, even where the conduct itself does not result in conviction of a crime.

Three years later, Ben Roethlisberger was subject to this policy: despite never being convicted of sexual assault, Goodell suspended him for six games (later reduced to four). Proving sexual assault is sadly very difficult to do; as a result, Roethlisberger escaped criminal conviction, but that doesn’t mean we wanted, or were ready, to watch him play football. Were we ready after four games? Who knows.

In the abstract, I don’t want the NFL or Roger Goodell legislate morality. I don’t look to the NFL to influence the moral values of the country, me, or my family and friends. And for good reason: there is nothing inherently moral about the NFL or Goodell. Why would I look up to the NFL? I can immediately think of three reasons why I wouldn’t look to the NFL for moral guidance: They are Zygi Wilf, Jim Irsay, and Jimmy Haslam.

In theory, a commissioner who is beyond reproach could still keep the game of football clean despite all these dirty pieces. Perhaps that person could help find some common ground between “not legislating morality” and “not making me feel dirty for watching football.” One thing we have learned: that person is not Roger Goodell. Arbitrary and inconsistent rulings only have served to undermine the office of the commissioner. I don’t know of a single fan who thinks the NFL has done an effective job with its drug policy. Goodell’s role as police, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner has not worked.

Rice’s domestic violence incident has served to further downgrade the respect we have for Goodell. As of September 13, 2014, the vast majority of fans think the NFL commissioner is either incompetent, a liar, or the mastermind of a cover up (or all three). We are at the point where Dan Snyder is issuing public statements of support for Roger Goodell. Read that sentence again. Steve Spurrier comes out looking like more of a disciplinarian than Goodell. Read that one again, too.

Now, Goodell’s own shortcomings threaten to restrict his ability to perform his job. On what moral high ground could Goodell stand that would make him the appropriate person to discipline Peterson? A short suspension would be ridiculous, in my opinion, considering the details of this case. And given Goodell’s new stance on domestic violence, it seems unlikely that he’s going to be lenient when it comes time to punish Peterson. But a very severe punishment, which might feel appropriate coming from a commissioner with clean hands, would smell fishy coming from Goodell. You can already envision the headlines: “Goodell is overreacting to Peterson’s case to make himself look better for going to light on Rice.” “Goodell is trying to rebrand himself as tough on crime, and I’m not buying it.” “If Goodell is so focused on protecting the shield, how come he doesn’t resign?” The decision maker is now the story, rather than the offender. That’s a major problem.

I don’t know what the solution is to the NFL’s string of off-the-field incidents. Players are people, and people are going to do bad things. Owners are people, too, and the NFL has no shortage of people doing bad things. The commissioner may be a person, but that office needs to be beyond reproach, at least if it wants to implement standards of conduct for persons employed in the NFL that are considerably higher than what the law requires. It can not effectively administer punishment in its current state. Under Goodell’s reign, we’re so far down the sinkhole that there’s little hope of him ever looking clean again. I think it’s reasonable for NFL owners to get rid of Goodell because of how he handled the Rice situation. I know it’s reasonable for the NFL owners to get rid of him because it’s difficult to take him seriously anymore. Nobody in the NFL should be held to a higher standard than Goodell, a natural offshoot of the personal conduct policy he helped implement.

None of this will make me stop watching football, but it will make it less enjoyable, at least in the short term. There are tons of good players and owners and executives in the NFL, and it’s not fair to hold the many responsible for the crimes of a few. But tomorrow, at least, I think it will feel just a little more ridiculous than normal — at least for me — to spend all day watching football.

  1. It’s also why, for varying lengths of time, we didn’t watch to watch Mel Gibson or Michael Richards, either. []
  • Red

    Well said, Chase. At this point, I literally don’t believe a single word Goodell says. He has no credibility left. His opinions and judgments are worthless to me, and I have no faith in him whatsoever to lead the NFL in the right direction going forward. Roger, you need to go. You will not be missed.

  • As usual, very well said. I particularly think your point about the wealthy getting a different set of rules is an important one. Not enough has been said about the very soft legal penalty Rice got from people who definitely saw the tape. Greg Hardy also got not much for something that sure seems to have deserved much more.

    But I want to add one positive point about the guilt factor when it comes to watching football. It wasn’t that long ago that I would cringe frequently after a safety used his helmet to do something Tatum-esque to a receiver. And the announcers would talk about the great hit (never was sure how using your helmet as a weapon was seen as tough). That has changed dramatically and it’s not like all the fans or players have been happy about the changes. They have made watching football more fun for me, though. That goes for fewer devastating hits on kick returns, too. These changes took way too long to happen. More need to happen. But even if it took a while to get started, football has changed more than I would have anticipated on these issues, at least.

    Still, it is definitely a very tough week to be a football fan. Every time someone other than Peterson is rushing tomorrow, you’ll be thinking about Peterson and it will make the game seem awfully small. I certainly felt pretty weird about the Patriots early last year. It’s kind of amazing how that story has mostly faded over time, although I very rarely catch SportsCenter or pregame shows so it’s possible that my impression is mistaken.

    One last thought: Harvey Levin of TMZ did an interesting interview with Mike Francesa on WFAN on Thursday. He talked about working on a story on widespread turmoil inside the NFL office. He wouldn’t get specific about it because they were working on things. It’s worth checking out: http://newyork.cbslocal.com/audio-on-demand/mike-francesa-1/.

    • Richie

      Not enough has been said about the very soft legal penalty Rice got from people who definitely saw the tape.

      I thought I heard that his case is still being investigated by law enforcement. Is that not true? Is his “case closed” from a legal standpoint?

      • Bill

        The related criminal case has already been adjudicated, with jeopardy attached. As part of an agreement between Rice and the prosecution to have charges dismissed, Rice agreed to undergo counseling. Had there been no agreement, had the prosecution dismissed the charges without prejudice to reinstate or refile, and if there were no speedy trial issues, then the prosecution would likely be allowed to reinstate or refile those charges. The agreement negates all of that. If Rice breached the agreement, that would change things. But barring that, the state criminal case is done.

  • Wade Iuele

    I think there is precedent for the NFL using its stature to influence social issues in America (see them refusing to hold the Super Bowl in Arizona until the state recognized MLK day). The NFL can be a positive social influence if it exerts its might properly. Unfortunately in the current case, the indecision and bumbling of the NFL has shown that the public is ahead of the NFL on the subject of domestic violence.

    The NFL can recover. They need a firm stance; some hard and fast rules about the standards for NFL players when it comes to domestic violence. But the NFL cannot fully recover without a new fall guy. Just as one of Neo’s functions in the Matrix was to return to the source to reset the program and reassert stability, it is the function of the figurehead of a massive enterprise like the NFL to fall on the sword and divert social backlash away from the ownership. The commish must and will resign in order to prevent picket lines in front of the owners’ cash machines.

    I think the current commish has done some good things for player safety and for making sure that kids continue to play football in order to continue the flow of athletes to the pro game.

    If I were the owners, I would have the commish outlaw the Redskins name in order to fix that issue, and then resign as commish so a new guy can step in with a zero tolerance policy for domestic violence. That should fix things.

  • Clemente

    Is there any confusion about what Goodell’s job is? What his bosses want him to do? Ask him to do? Pay him to do?

    His job is to protect/increase the profits of the NFL. His employers are the OWNERS OF THE 32 TEAMS. Why aren’t we holding the owners responsible for how this has been handled? If a new commissioner is hired, it’ll be the same person. Just a different face.

    By the way, it seems the owners have been pretty favorable to Goodell during all of this… Hm…