It would be easier to think of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as a latter-day Inspector Clouseau, Peter Sellers’ dimwitted fop of a cop in the “Pink Panther” movie series, with a clip here serving as analogy for the investigative prowess Goodell seems to have brought to bear in the case of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.
Clumsy awkwardness aside, the seriousness attendant to domestic violence means that “easy” isn’t an option to take in assessing Goodell’s role. He and his advisors screwed up so profoundly this sorry affair that it is transcending football fanhood and metastasizing throughout mainstream culture before our cringing eyes.
The mishandling has turned the NFL’s opening weekend into a proctology exam of the hubris that infects the empire.
As an NFL broadcast partner, ESPN is too often incapable or unwilling to report honestly on its cash cow’s misdeeds. The notable exception is Keith Olbermann, whose evisceration this week of the investigation, its conclusion, and the apparent coverup by many parties is a marvel of clear thinking and independent delivery:
On the other end, broadcasters Chris Berman and former Seahawks quarterback Trent Dilfer tried to explain the Rice episode in the middle of ESPN’s Monday night telecast of the Chargers-Cardinals game. Berman long ago became an industrial-strength goober, but even Dilfer, a bright guy, reached for everything but a relevant point.
Consumer warning: Listening to this stilted convolution in the video from Deadspin here may cause some viewers to stick forks through temples (medical science calls the phenomenon “the Stephen A. Smith syndrome”).
The point of the exchange is to demonstrate how many connected with the NFL are being made to look foolish when they feel the corporate urgency to explain the inexplicable.
The episode is so far inexplicable because when TMZ released Monday the previously unreleased portion of the hotel security video, which showed Rice in the elevator knocking out then-fiance Janay Palmer with a blow to her head, which then hits the car’s handrail before she drops unconscious to the floor, the disclosure made out Goodell to be a fool or a liar.
A liar, because the NFL maintains steadfastly that its officials did not see the in-elevator video until Monday, despite the fact the the NFL’s sophisticated security apparatus is, in the global power rankings, somewhere between the KGB and the Mossad. The fact that TMZ could buy a copy of the video from its unnamed owner that neither the NFL nor the Atlantic City, N.J., police could obtain, strains credulity beyond the breaking point.
But if Goodell and minions did see the video’s contents, and tried to whitewash the truth while protecting Rice, the Ravens and the NFL’s shield, then they were fools because that is no longer how the vide0-camera-pickled world works.
When the world sees, rather than hears or reads about, Rice clobbering a woman unconscious, the visceral resonance is profound. Imagine if there were a video record of that horrific night in Kansas City in 2012, when Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who had a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit, shot his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, nine times, then killed himself in front of his coach and general manager.
Instead, 95 percent of football fans outside of Kansas City have forgotten about it, yet the consequences were far worse than the Rice episode, which ESPN’s Adam Schefter called perhaps the worst black eye ever for the NFL. Please. Ask all the retired players dealing with a variety of mental health issues, including uncontrollable violence, about their views on the worst deeds of the NFL. Better yet, ask their wives.
Hey, Rice and Palmer are now married. She has been trotted out with her husband at a news conference, following Rice’s derided two-game suspension, in a cynical attempt to manipulate public sentiment by saying all is well.
Whether Goodell is determined to be a liar or a fool in this case matters little; either is a fireable offense. I agree with Olbermann about the need for Goodell to step down. But such an action needs to be taken with the understanding that change is needed for reasons beyond the significant fact that Goodell simply can no longer be believed in this case.
From the callous, appalling settlement with pro football retirees over concussions, to the bungled “Bountygate” punishments that required the intervention of former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, to the preposterous defense of the Redskins nickname, to the incompetence/obliviousness of the Rice episode, Goodell, and the people who support his leadership, are tone deaf to a changing culture and the responsibilities in it.
Moreover, owners, coaches and players need a far greater understanding of an industry built on violence that creates a subculture of violence as an acceptable solution for real-life problems. Obviously, many ingredients go into the cultural stew that makes violence acceptable for too many, but the No. 1 sport in America needs to ask itself if it wants to be part of that, or apart from it.
As lords of a monopoly realm, Goodell and entourage have little concept of listening to outsiders when, to cite one small example of institutional arrogance, the NFL can demand, and get, police escorts for all owners’ municipal travel in Super Bowl host cities.
So long have they been used to hearing their names in reverent tones they no longer feel a need to listen. The NFL needs new leadership, and not from its insular culture of entitlement. Unlikely though it is that they will take the counsel of sportswriters or sportscasters on such a matter, they now have an attentive audience of wives, sisters and daughters who can’t un-see what they just saw.