Roger Goodell took over as NFL commissioner on Sept. 1, 2006. He has guided the NFL through labor strife. He has stewarded the league through what may still become an existential crisis with cerebral trauma. But, for many, his tenure has been defined by his implementation of the league’s personal conduct policy. Goodell told Time Magazine in 2012 he “doesn’t do things for public relations” or “do the popular thing” as Commissioner. But, his stated goal of “protecting the shield” has been doing precisely that.
Goodell has appointed himself the league’s extra-curricular punishment baron, in an amorphous system affording broad personal discretion. His intent has been to send a clear message: “Mess with the shield? Roger Goodell will mess with you, to a disproportionate extent.” But the resulting policies have proved indiscriminate, often inconsequential and sops to public pressure.
Perception, when Goodell took over, was the the NFL had run amok. The Cincinnati Bengals alone had nine players arrested. The media was fixated. The league’s image was being tarnished. Goodell stepped in with a fire extinguisher, the personal conduct policy. Almost immediately, he took his Draconian “bite out of crime.”
Adam “Pacman” Jones received a one-year suspension in 2007 for his involvement with a strip club shooting. Chris Henry was suspended for the first half of the 2007 season after multiple arrests. Tank Johnson was suspended for half of the 2007 season after multiple gun-related incidents. Mike Vick was suspended indefinitely, after reaching a plea deal in the dog fighting case.
This was a show of strength from Goodell. But his “heads on pikes” approach had little deterrent. As Jason Lisk wrote in 2013, increased attention and scrutiny on NFL players from the personal conduct policy may have led to more incidents. NFL off-season documented arrests, as of 2013, had increased 61 percent since it was instituted.
Goodell expanded the severe policy from off-field to on-field conduct. He fined Bill Belichick $500,000 in 2007 over illegal videotaping in the Spygate scandal. When Bountygate emerged with the Saints, he suspended Sean Payton for the 2012 season and Gregg Williams indefinitely (later reduced to a year). He also suspended four Saints players on dubious pretexts. The latter were later vacated by Paul Tagliabue.
Maybe this has deterred practice peepers or nixed possibly extant bounty systems. But, the true effect was displaying Goodell’s toughness in the moment.
That brings us to domestic violence. Past NFL incidents have generated little public outcry. A few people had written about it (us included in a 2009 post that disappeared into the ether). But, before Ray Rice, there had been little concerted call for action. We’re not sure if Roger Goodell needed to see the video to understand fully what happened. But much of the media and public appeared to. Facing little pressure, penalties were infrequent and relatively slight.
Per a 538 database, 10 players have been suspended for domestic violence under Goodell’s charge since 2007. None more than two games. Half were only a single game. The only NFL domestic violence suspension in the entire database longer than two games was Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman’s three-game suspension in 2004. Pittman’s wife reported “30-40 prior domestic violence situations,” after he rammed the car she was driving with his Hummer. That was his second NFL suspension for an incident involving his wife and third domestic incident altogether.
Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington has been suspended twice under the league’s substance abuse policy. He has not been suspended (yet) for pleading guilty to aggravated assault of his ex-girlfriend. Longtime Steelers linebacker James Harrison was suspended for an illegal hit in 2011. He was not suspended after breaking down a door and slapping his wife in 2008. Dez Bryant was not suspended for a 2012 domestic violence incident. Greg Hardy has not been suspended, as he appeals a conviction for domestic assault. Ray MacDonald remains on the field. Chad Johnson was released by the Dolphins for a domestic violence incident, but never suspended by the NFL.
Within that context, Goodell’s initial punishment of Rice was unsurprising. The penalty coincided with past ones. Domestic violence was something that, even for a player of Rice’s stature, would fade into a footnote with time. If you don’t think people forget, search for “Jim Brown” and “mentor.”
Where Goodell erred badly was miscalculating the impact seeing the video would have. Seeing anything is more powerful than reading about it. Mass mobilization, over social media, is a few clicks away. Without the initial video, the lead story about Ray Rice would have been what fantasy impact he’d have coming back in Week 3. It still may have been, without the second, more graphic one.
Outcry over the initial suspension surprised the NFL. Goodell, as is his wont, responded by laying down the hammer with a new domestic violence policy. First offense: six games. Second offense: lifetime ban. That extinguished the fire, sort of, until the second video came out. The outcry was more visceral. The NFL acted in response to the outcry (there is no other plausible explanation) and enacted further punishment. Rice was released by the Ravens and suspended indefinitely.
These responses were classic Goodell: decisive, ad hoc force to create a show for public opinion. The difference here is the league has already lost control of the narrative. As the days go by, it is snowballing. Since he appointed himself the NFL’s ultimate arbiter, it is snowballing on him. Calls for Goodell’s head began with the usual firebrands, but have not ended there.
Goodell has about 44 million reasons per year to ride this thing out. We’ll see if, by Sunday, folks are still ready for some football.