Do you feel a little dirty today? I do. Despite everything I knew and felt about the Ray Rice situation, despite everything I wrote about it previously, I still sat and watched Monday night football. I watched it because I’m a fan of the New York Giants. I watched it because I enjoy NFL football.
That’s the essence of the conflict here. The NFL has a product that I enjoy as a consumer to the point that I end up looking the other way at its moral relativism no matter how offended I otherwise might be. That makes me complicit in the dirty business of a league that, first, only suspended Rice for two games and, now, keeps Roger Goodell employed.
That has to change and if it doesn’t, if we as users of their product don’t take a stand by not supporting the league, its games, its sponsors until the NFL decides to fundamentally change and stand for something other than its brand, then we too are as big a part of the problem as is Goodell.
Goodell should resign as commissioner and if he doesn’t he should be fired. Goodell already said he won’t resign and the decrepit ownership of the league, many of whom have their own sordid problems, are so out of touch with what takes place on the streets of day to day life that they probably will award Goodell a bonus.
Goodell’s job is supposed to be about, above all else, the protection of the game. The NFL is at its cultural nadir at the moment, even if its games remain popular, because Goodell failed at the most important job he had. It’s amazing, really, that he can’t or won’t see it.
As usual, Goodell took to a controlled setting to explain away how incredibly unfeeling he and the league are to victims of domestic abuse who suffer at the hands of the men the league employs. He looked sincere even as he presented a strong face for the his and hence the league’s indifference to societal norms when he said, echoing the talking points that the Ravens clearly had been given a few days earlier, that seeing the video made all the difference. I think Goodell is lying about not seeing the video previously mainly because it’s almost impossible to believe otherwise. And while he gets no benefit of the doubt any more, let’s just assume he didn’t. So what? He knew what happened and it matters little that he felt misled by Rice and his attorney who suggested that Rice’s fiancée essentially had it coming to her because she was the aggressor that led Rice to half the further discussion with a well-placed punch.
What Goodell suggests, what John Harbaugh and Ravens owner Steve Biscotti suggest, as they were shamed into facing the almost incomprehensible wrongness of their prior actions is that they never really knew how horrific domestic violence was until they actually witnessed it. More to the point, they expect the public to buy that explanation. That’s how far out of touch the league really is and why Goodell has to go, now.
Goodell’s crimes go even deeper. Foremost, he’s lost any hope of gaining the high ground on this issue. He can announce a hundred new initiatives and it won’t matter because he’s doing it because it was forced on him and not because he wanted to.
He could have taken a much more aggressive approach toward ridding the league of abusers in his CBS News interview and did not. Indeed, right now and despite his letter to league owners about a change to its domestic violence policies, two players, Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald continue to play. Hardy has actually been convicted by a judge of assault on a female. He’s appealed so the league dithers as if it has no choice. McDonald has been arrested and despite his head coach, Jim Harbaugh, proclaiming zero tolerance for domestic violence, McDonald continues to play.
Let’s not lose sight of that fact that no one understands the power of the NFL’s brand better than Goodell as he wields it constantly in order to leverage any and everything he can from anyone. He doles out limited access to select journalists who will further the league’s narrative in order. He puts players at risk constantly, first by participating in the cover up of the impact concussions were having on former and current players and still by allowing Thursday night games despite all the medical evidence against such quick turnaround. Goodell uses his bully pulpit for one thing only, to further maximize the league’s financial windfall while ignoring the cultural slide it contributes to in that pursuit.
Goodell’s abject incompetence at recognizing the broader implications of his decisions isn’t without precedence. The real reason situations like this continue to come up, particularly in football, has everything to do with the culture of the sport that has been set by the NFL for decades, a culture that values winning and the spoils that come from it far above anything else, a culture that has found its way to the bottom of the feeding pools.
It’s coincidental at least, perhaps ironic, that on the same day that the NFL was finally shaken to its foundations by its own hypocrisy, the NCAA shed the vestiges of its high minded pretension by publicly removing the remaining sanctions from Penn State’s program, sanctions levied because of that school’s institutional coddling of a pedophile because of its desire not to derail its lucrative football program. I guess because there’s no evidence of new pedophilia among the Penn State coaching staff that it’s time to simply burnish the previous penalties and act as if the entire matter never happened.
There is a common thread.
Players don’t enter the NFL and then abuse women. It’s a learned behavior over the many years in which their status is exalted because of their ability to run faster, throw better and tackle harder than someone else. It starts in high school, continues through college and by the time these players reach the NFL their perceptions of societal norms is so skewed that they end up rallying around a player like Rice as the Ravens players did when all that was known then was that Rice dragged his unconscious girlfriend out of an elevator and left her like a discarded cigarette butt after he had snuffed her out in a fit of pique.
There isn’t a high school or college program in America that hasn’t found a way around punishing its better players in order to avoid potentially disastrous results on the field in the next game. Florida head coach Will Muschamp suspended 3 players for the team’s opening game against Idaho but that game lasted one play because of the weather and was cancelled. Florida was scheduled to take on a slightly gamer team in Eastern Michigan the following week so Muschamp lifted the suspensions and lashed out at critics who questioned his hypocrisy.
Muschamp can make all the excuses he wants but he did it because he felt he needed the players on the field for a game against Eastern Michigan. That says something about how far Florida has fallen, certainly, but it says more about how a situation like Rice’s happened in the first place.
Players are coddled and ultimately made to feel like the rules of proper society are bendable in extenuating circumstances, like a big game on Saturday or Sunday. Rice had no real fear that losing his temper and knocking out his fiancée and the mother of his child would cause him to lose his job. He had no such fear because it’s never happened in the NFL.
Last week Sports Illustrated had a profile of Louisville coach Bobby Petrino. I suspect that it didn’t make Petrino happy nor his fans for it laid out in subtle but definitive ways the institutional hypocrisy that creates the cesspool that ultimately lets scum like Rice float to the top.
Petrino is a complicated figure with an incredibly ethically challenged record both personally and professionally. One thing he does, though, is win and for that he’s been rewarded again with a top college job. Indeed Louisville’s athletic director Tom Jurich did a clever slight of hand by turning the question outward as to why he’d bring back Petrino after all the damage he’d done previously to at least 3 different football programs, including Louisville’s. He couched it in near religious terms by responding, rhetorically with his own question, “who am I to not forgive?” In other words, we’re all servants of God and if God forgives, how can we not model that behavior?
It’s all bullshit and Jurich must know it and if he doesn’t he shouldn’t be in his position. It isn’t a question of forgiveness it’s a question of winning and losing. He calculated that Petrino gave the school the best shot at keeping its program at a high level and he took it figuring he could just shower the grime off later.
That’s why players don’t fear consequences. There’s always someone else to pick up the pieces for a guy who can help a team win. Whatever publicly the coaches or owners say, what they do speaks more loudly. Think about the McDonald and Hardy cases. Both continue to play because their absence would hurt the team. The tired yarn of letting the legal process play out is ridiculous, particularly in domestic violence cases. It puts the onus on the victim to recant or refuse to testify in order to save her abuser’s job. That’s what the Ravens did to Janey Palmer and it’s what the 49ers and the Panthers are doing to the victims in their cases.
But of course there are other options to letting the process play out as they say, they just don’t include letting Hardy and McDonald play in the games. Their teams could have simply deactivated the players from the active roster on game days. Sure they’d still get paid but it would leave no doubt about how team management felt about their actions. But that apparently would clash with the Panthers’ and the 49ers’ nascent playoff hopes and thus clearly wasn’t considered.
More to the point, let’s not act like anyone in the NFL actually cares about a due diligence process or is even bound by one. They just pull it out when it’s convenient to them as cover for far more nefarious motives. The NFL, despite having the power and money of a medium sized country, isn’t subject to the Constitutional protections of due process. Goodell has told us many times that he can take action at any time for the good of the game. Yet he and the Panthers and the 49ers in concert saw no reason to take any action yet on Hardy or McDonald and still don’t even as the league burns around them for the inept handling of the Rice situation.
Look at the shameful way that everyone associated with the Ravens handled the Rice situation. The owner left it in the hands of the football people who calculated that the team’s playoff chances were less without Rice. So the team president Dick Cass, the team general manager Ozzie Newsome and the team head coach John Harbaugh wrapped their swaddling arms around Rice, furthered his despicable implication that it was Palmer’s fault all along, and treated him as if he had accidentally run the car into the neighbor’s hedges. Grounding him for two games stung about as much as a paddling does to a 6 year old with about the same impact long term.
What all of these demonstrate is that apologists exist at the highest levels to excuse player behavior because what they do isn’t about building men or character but about winning games and bringing money into the school, the city, the franchise, the league.
As should Goodell, the Ravens should be made to purge the franchise of its owner, its president and its general manager and its head coach. The franchise’s culture can’t be fixed as long as any of them remain. The same goes for the Panthers and the 49ers and any other team coddling the miscreants on their teams.
It seems like the only people that don’t know that the league is at a major crossroads is the league itself and all those apologists. Just keep on the same road and they won’t need anyone calling for their heads. They’ll have made themselves so irrelevant that they’ll fade away of their own accord. If that’s the way this goes, then good riddance. Finding another diversion from pro football won’t be nearly as hard as they think.