The easy thing to forget in this latest National Football League fiasco, the thing the NFL is counting on us to forget, is that Roger Goodell is only playing the part of Big Boss.
Goodell is the chief executive of a multibillion-dollar enterprise, and with broad shoulders and fair hair he looks the part of an authority figure, the man, the law, the last word. But a CEO answers to a board of directors, and, make no mistake, Goodell answers to the 32 NFL teams’ owners.
The notion that, as NFL commissioner, he is the most powerful man in sports should be retired with the nobility of playing through concussions, the idea games in subzero weather build character and other self-serving myths.
The owners are Goodell’s bosses. They are thebosses. This isn’t the typical bane of corporate America, the too-complacent lap dog board bending to the will of the executive. Goodell didn’t make $44.2 million in 2012 by telling his overlords what to do, but by making them richer and more powerful.
What Goodell does, he does in the owners’ interest, with their authority and their blessing. He serves at their pleasure, tasked with protecting their investments and increasing their returns. So long as he is seen as his own man rather than dancing at the end of 32 strings, he shields them from direct criticism.
The mistakes he makes — such as failing to sense public opinion favoring a new nickname for the league’s Washington franchise and fighting what ultimately will be a losing battle to keep the Federal Communications Commission from mothballing its outdated blackout rule for games that don’t sell out — reflect their priorities.
So while many have publicly blasted Goodell’s botched, insensitive handling of the Ray Rice case, you know who hasn’t?
The NFL owners, that’s who.
New England’s Robert Kraft and Dallas’ Jerry Jones, two of the league’s real powers, have lined up behind Goodell, the fortunate son of a former U.S. senator and son-in-law of a former White House chief of staff. Other team owners, such as the Bears’ Virginia McCaskey and her family here in Chicago, have remained mum.
Cowboys owner Jones made Goodell’s mishandling sound benign, comparing it to a missed assignment “when an offensive lineman obviously gets beat on the first move, but he has the athletic ability to recover and try to get it right on the second move,” as Jones said Tuesday on a Dallas radio station, according to the Dallas Morning News.
“I know that we’re doing that, trying to get it as good as we can get it on the second time around. I think that’s happening,” Jones said. “There’s no question in my mind the emphasis that we have on spousal abuse in the NFL and the lack of tolerance for it. It’s intolerable, and it will be adjudicated accordingly.”
But the league has mouthed that kind of sentiment for years, predating even NFL Hall of Famer and announcer O.J. Simpson’s 1989 no-contest plea for spousal abuse, five years before Nicole Brown Simpson’s slaying.
Goodell’s original two-game suspension of Rice for the February incident with his then-fiancee, far milder than penalties for drug use, reflected a pattern of worrying more about players and teams’ stake in their well-being. His subsequent announcement of harsher punishments for domestic abuse cases, a move Goodell conceded in a note to owners was because he erred in the Rice case, still had enough wiggle room to render the tough talk moot.
What’s more, the idea that the league, or anyone else, needed to see the clip of Rice’s actual knockout punch that TMZ posted Monday to know what led to an unconscious woman, now his wife, being dragged from an elevator is an insult to common sense.
Monday night’s TV ratings for ESPN’s NFL double-header — the opening blowout down 21 percent from a year ago and the nightcap up marginally — offer no clear sign whether fans have reservations about supporting the league.
But the league and its sponsors have no reservations about supporting Goodell, who did not move to suspend Rice indefinitely until the latest tape led the Baltimore Ravens to cut him from the team, abruptly withdrawing its unabashed support of the one-time star.
“I know our commissioner has taken some heat,” Kraft said Tuesday on “CBS This Morning.” His remarks came during an appearance that had been scheduled ostensibly to celebrate the network’s slate of Thursday night NFL games, a simulcast with the league’s cable channel for which Goodell’s office managed to squeeze $275 million plus production costs from the broadcaster.
“The way he’s handled this situation himself, coming out with the mea culpa in his statement … and setting a very clear policy how we conduct ourselves in the NFL, I thought was excellent. Anyone who’s second-guessing that doesn’t know him.”
Or they don’t know him the way the owners do.
This is the same Goodell who, testifying at a Capitol Hill hearing not so long ago, was so determined to avoid acknowledging a connection between football head injuries and debilitating brain diseases and dementia that many likened it to tobacco companies’ efforts to dismiss a link between smoking and cancer. In time, the NFL would reach a settlement with former players. It was unavoidable, and arguably still not enough.
At some point, maybe even at long last now, the NFL will wake up to the paradox of courting female fans while not seeming sufficiently disturbed by incidents such as the Rice case, slow to respond and ineffectual when it does.
“I don’t want to get in the role of law enforcement or things I don’t understand,” Kraft said about the lack of urgency with Rice. “The good news is, people did the right thing when the visual — when you see that visually, it’s just such a turnoff — and I hope a great lesson to people everywhere (is) that this isn’t going to be tolerated.”
When the owners say it and mean it, you can count on Roger Goodell to do it.