Setting aside for now whether the NFL saw the tape (maybe it did) or even needed to see the tape (it probably didn’t) and whether an independent investigation will cause ownership to hire a new captain for their 300-foot, gold-plated yacht, a legitimate question has emerged regarding Commissioner Roger Goodell’s ability to govern pro football in the wake of the Ray Rice scandal.
During the 2011 lockout, Goodell routinely pointed out that he’s the Commissioner of the entire league. As a practical matter, he ultimately runs the entire sport. Will he be able to run the sport with credibility moving forward, especially when the time comes to impose discipline on players, coaches, owners, and/or teams?
The 2012 witch hunt against the Saints, which levied harsh punishments for tough off-field talk with no clear nexus to illegal on-field conduct as a potential knee-jerk reaction to the concussion crisis, undermined Goodell’s credibility, especially in New Orleans. But that case was more complex and nuanced, lacking the hot-button clarity that has made the Rice scandal a major mainstream news story.
This case will stick permanently to Goodell, making it difficult for him to credibly levy punishment for any and all infractions for which players, coaches, owners, and/or teams are disciplined in the future.
Not long after Goodell got the job in 2006, complaints began to emerge from agents who suddenly weren’t able to negotiate outcomes to substance-abuse and PED cases as easily as they could under former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. A new sheriff was in town, and he eventually became labeled by TIME as “The Enforcer.”
So how can “The Enforcer” still be “The Enforcer” after so horribly failing to properly enforce on an issue of such significance? It could be that, in addition to a revamped and reconstituted NFL Security department, Goodell will have to sacrifice the role of “Enforcer,” in the same way that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones should sacrifice the role of General Manager.
The better model could be for the Commissioner (whoever it may be) to be the good cop, with a top-level lieutenant serving as the bad cop. And if/when the bad cop becomes anything other than squeaky clean, a new bad cop will be hired.
In this case, Goodell will have to find a way to effectively fulfill both roles despite the stain of an investigation that was grossly incompetent at best, clumsily covered up at worst. It may not be possible, assuming that the owners ultimately decide that change isn’t needed.