Commentary Magazine


Topic: Roger Goodell

The NFL and the Sum of our Sins

It’s open season on the National Football League this week as politicians, pundits, activists, and celebrities are venting their outrage about the misdeeds of some of its athletes. All of this anger about the behavior of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson is justified. But as this wave of indignation flows over the NFL and its embattled commissioner Roger Goodell, it’s worth pondering just how much good will come of an effort to pin responsibility for all the evils of society on a sports business that is being excoriated all over the dial for only wishing to make money rather than doing good. But as much as the sport deserves a good beating, this is a moment when cooler heads might do well to observe that the sudden willingness to see football as synonymous with domestic violence makes no more sense than the league’s pretense to stand for all that’s good in American culture.

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It’s open season on the National Football League this week as politicians, pundits, activists, and celebrities are venting their outrage about the misdeeds of some of its athletes. All of this anger about the behavior of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson is justified. But as this wave of indignation flows over the NFL and its embattled commissioner Roger Goodell, it’s worth pondering just how much good will come of an effort to pin responsibility for all the evils of society on a sports business that is being excoriated all over the dial for only wishing to make money rather than doing good. But as much as the sport deserves a good beating, this is a moment when cooler heads might do well to observe that the sudden willingness to see football as synonymous with domestic violence makes no more sense than the league’s pretense to stand for all that’s good in American culture.

Let me confess that I find the NFL’s present discomfiture somewhat amusing. As much as I like to watch football (and have wasted countless hours every autumn of my adolescence and adult life being disappointed and infuriated by the New York Jets, a team that can always be counted on to invent new ways to humiliate itself and its faithful fans) the league’s smug, corporate conceit of itself as “America’s Game” is insufferable. The elevation of the Super Bowl to an endless and boring secular rite of winter that all of us, even those of us that despise the teams that are playing in the championship, feel compelled to watch so as to be able to comment on the commercials lest we appear out of touch with the zeitgeist, is similarly obnoxious.

The NFL surpassed baseball in terms of television ratings and general popularity (as opposed to actual attendance) largely on the basis of the fact that it is the perfect sport to watch on television (as the small minority of fans who attend games can attest, you can actually see more of the game at home than at the stadium) and the popularity of the largely illegal gambling on the point spreads on each week’s schedule of games. That has given the league and its teams an income stream that has allowed it to do pretty much anything it liked.

The conundrum about the NFL is that the more violent the game has become and the more atrocious the injuries that are inflicted on a regular basis on its players (a function in part of the fact that those who now play in the NFL are far bigger, stronger, and faster than those who strapped on leather helmets in the sport’s pre-World War Two ice age), the more the league has tried to present itself as the embodiment of community service do-gooding. The league’s ubiquitous United Way commercials were just the tip of an iceberg of public-relations baloney intended to portray a game predicated on, in George Will’s memorable quip, “violence punctuated by committee meetings,” as something more public spirited if not elevated.

The point is, you can love football without buying into the NFL’s conception of itself. But having foisted this airbrushed NFL Films image on the country, neither Goodell nor any of its teams are in any position to ask that their players be judged by the same standards as anyone else. If you ask people to treat you as gods, you can’t complain when they find out you have feet of clay and start talking about tearing down the altars where false deities are worshipped.

But even though there’s something slightly satisfying about watching NFL owners squirm, the notion that this league is uniquely responsible for domestic violence or abuse of children is a bit much.

Goodell opened himself up to this sort of treatment when he gave Rice a mere slap on the wrist with a team game suspension after he was found to have knocked his then fiancée unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator. When the surveillance tape of the events was publicized months later, the world got to see just how tough the Ravens running back could be when facing up against a defenseless woman. Goodell’s problems grew when it became clear he might not have told the truth when he claimed not to have seen the video before his initial ruling.

That was made even worse when news broke about Peterson’s indictment for child abuse in Texas after he was observed beating and injuring his son with a tree branch. Peterson was held out of this past Sunday’s game but, since he is innocent until proven guilty, will apparently be allowed to play until his case his decided. The same is true for some other football players accused or found guilty of a violent crime. Like the initial lenient treatment accorded Rice, this is all seen as further evidence of the NFL’s whitewashing of a record of violence for which it should be held accountable and justification for pontifications about how the violence of the game is somehow responsible for the private behavior of its players.

But though it’s hard to sympathize with Goodell or any of the other rich people that arrogantly preside over the sport, the rage against the league is as disproportionate as the league’s swaggering image. Like other industries, including other forms of popular entertainment, the NFL employs its share of thugs. But contrary to the pop psychology being spouted on the networks about football and domestic violence, this might be a good moment to point out that criminal louts were beating their wives, girlfriends, and children, long before Yale’s Walter Camp sketched out some of the key rules that differentiated American football from rugby and Princeton played the sport’s first college game against Rutgers.

I’m entirely sympathetic to the notion that an entertainment business should not employ or help glorify criminals. No one, and especially not someone who has become notorious for violent behavior, has a right to play professional football so if Rice, Peterson, and anyone else labeled as a bad actor never play again, so much the better. And it sends a good message to the nation that such behavior is disqualifying for inclusion in the country’s top sports TV shows. But banning them or firing Goodell won’t fix this country’s social pathologies to which football has only the most tenuous connection. Nor will any amount of soul searching by the game’s leaders or hearings at which members of Congress might grandstand on the issue (the next, almost inevitable step). Football is, after all, a game, albeit a rough one, and not, contrary to the invocations of countless coaches, a metaphor for life, the embodiment of the American way, or any other such superannuated nonsense. The NFL is not the sum of our sins any more than it is the embodiment of our virtues as a nation.

The intense focus on the NFL is just another symptom of the 24/7 news cycle which will move on to something else once there are no more developments or something else comes along. But as much as that shouldn’t mean less attention should be paid to domestic violence, no one should be under the illusion that the current anger at Goodell or any of his players is anything more elevated than any other pop culture feeding frenzies.

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The Stain of the Saints

Many newspapers in America gave front-page coverage to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision to suspend New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton for the coming year (costing him his $7.5 million salary), former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis for the first eight regular-season games next season and assistant head coach Joe Vitt for six games. In addition, the franchise was fined $500,000 and lost several high future draft picks.

The penalties were leveled in the aftermath of an investigation of the Saints’ illegal bounty program designed, in part, to injure opposing players from 2009 to 2011. It was the strongest punishment in league history.

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Many newspapers in America gave front-page coverage to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision to suspend New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton for the coming year (costing him his $7.5 million salary), former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis for the first eight regular-season games next season and assistant head coach Joe Vitt for six games. In addition, the franchise was fined $500,000 and lost several high future draft picks.

The penalties were leveled in the aftermath of an investigation of the Saints’ illegal bounty program designed, in part, to injure opposing players from 2009 to 2011. It was the strongest punishment in league history.

Drew Brees, the Pro Bowl quarterback of the Saints, said via Twitter, “I am speechless. Sean Payton is a great man, coach, and mentor. The best there is. I need to hear an explanation for punishment.”

How about (for starters) lying to the NFL during its investigation and refusing to stop the program after the league had ordered it to do so. You could add to the list conduct that is disgraceful (paying a bounty to players whose hit causes another player to be taken off the field on a stretcher borders on malevolence). And protecting players from injury. And the integrity of the game. And sending a message that will prevent anything like this from every happening again.

It is precisely because football is an inherently violent game that clear boundaries need to be drawn and certain rules abided by. The New Orleans Saints, a franchise that a few years ago was the feel-good sports story of the year, has stained itself in ways that will be hard to recover from.

Roger Goodell, on the other hand, acted in an appropriate and impressive manner. He sent a powerful message, including a powerful moral message that will become a model for other profession sports leagues.

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NFL Action: Goodell on Roethlisberger

According to ESPN:

Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for six games on Wednesday for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, the NFL announced. The Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback also was ordered to undergo a comprehensive behavioral evaluation. Commissioner Roger Goodell will evaluate Roethlisberger’s progress before the season and might consider reducing the suspension to four games. However, a failure to comply with the NFL’s ruling might lead to a longer suspension.

In his letter to Roethlisberger, Goodell said:

I recognize that the allegations [of sexual assault] in Georgia were disputed and that they did not result in criminal charges being filed against you. My decision today is not based on a finding that you violated Georgia law, or on a conclusion that differs from that of the local prosecutor. That said, you are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct in Milledgeville that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans.

Your conduct raises sufficient concerns that I believe effective intervention now is the best step for your personal and professional welfare.

I believe it is essential that you take full advantage of the resources available to you. My ultimate disposition in this matter will be influenced by the extent to which you do so, what you learn as a result, and a demonstrated commitment to making positive change in your life.

In your six years in the NFL, you have first thrilled and now disappointed a great many people. I urge you to take full advantage of this opportunity to get your life and career back on track.

Good for Roger Goodell — and good for the Steeler organization and the city of Pittsburgh, which is not standing behind Roethlisberger. The disappointment and anger directed at Roethlisberger, who has found himself in trouble before, is hard to overstate. In fact, ESPN reports that the Steelers are entertaining trade offers from other clubs (such a trade would surprise me).

Goodell has made it clear in the past, and with this latest action, that he takes the phrase “integrity of the game” seriously. He understands that athletes, whether they want to or not, are role models, and they should be held to some minimal standards of conduct. And he knows that as commissioner, he has a “brand” — the best in sports — to protect.

I have no idea whether Roethlisberger is going to finally get his life under control, but what Goodell has done will increase the possibility that he will.

What Goodell did was impressive. Ben Roethlisberger is down to his last chance. He can’t say he hasn’t been warned.

According to ESPN:

Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for six games on Wednesday for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, the NFL announced. The Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback also was ordered to undergo a comprehensive behavioral evaluation. Commissioner Roger Goodell will evaluate Roethlisberger’s progress before the season and might consider reducing the suspension to four games. However, a failure to comply with the NFL’s ruling might lead to a longer suspension.

In his letter to Roethlisberger, Goodell said:

I recognize that the allegations [of sexual assault] in Georgia were disputed and that they did not result in criminal charges being filed against you. My decision today is not based on a finding that you violated Georgia law, or on a conclusion that differs from that of the local prosecutor. That said, you are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct in Milledgeville that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans.

Your conduct raises sufficient concerns that I believe effective intervention now is the best step for your personal and professional welfare.

I believe it is essential that you take full advantage of the resources available to you. My ultimate disposition in this matter will be influenced by the extent to which you do so, what you learn as a result, and a demonstrated commitment to making positive change in your life.

In your six years in the NFL, you have first thrilled and now disappointed a great many people. I urge you to take full advantage of this opportunity to get your life and career back on track.

Good for Roger Goodell — and good for the Steeler organization and the city of Pittsburgh, which is not standing behind Roethlisberger. The disappointment and anger directed at Roethlisberger, who has found himself in trouble before, is hard to overstate. In fact, ESPN reports that the Steelers are entertaining trade offers from other clubs (such a trade would surprise me).

Goodell has made it clear in the past, and with this latest action, that he takes the phrase “integrity of the game” seriously. He understands that athletes, whether they want to or not, are role models, and they should be held to some minimal standards of conduct. And he knows that as commissioner, he has a “brand” — the best in sports — to protect.

I have no idea whether Roethlisberger is going to finally get his life under control, but what Goodell has done will increase the possibility that he will.

What Goodell did was impressive. Ben Roethlisberger is down to his last chance. He can’t say he hasn’t been warned.

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