Roger Goodell has no excuse for mishandling Ray Rice’s punishment

Sep 8, 2014, 9:36 PM | Updated: Sep 9, 2014, 8:25 am
It took the release of a gruesome video for Ray Rice to get the punishment he deserved all along. (...
It took the release of a gruesome video for Ray Rice to get the punishment he deserved all along. (AP)

Seeing the Ray Rice video is horrible.

Imagining yourself in a small enclosed space with an angry and violent professional football player is even worse. Seeing the callous way Rice reacted after he knocked out a woman he supposedly loved is unimaginable.

But knowing that this incident is just one of many, differentiated only because it was caught on video?

Quite honestly, it turns my stomach.

But that’s the easy part. It’s easy to stand against a heinous act caught on video for everyone to see. There is very little room for discussion. There is little to no gray area. Few among us can see that video and not want Rice’s head on a platter. We want him off our team, out of our league and thrown in jail. Or worse.

And yet, it took a public airing of that video to make any of those things happen.

We don’t yet know if commissioner Roger Goodell saw it before the rest of us. The NFL claims it is new to the league. TMZ claims it will provide evidence to the contrary. If TMZ is right, then it means Goodell watched the same horrific scene that we did and thought it wasn’t worth breaking protocol.

It means he was planning to allow Rice back on his field and he was willing to let fans wonder about the level of the player’s guilt when he knew it wasn’t in doubt. He would have allowed Rice to disgrace his league.

And if he did that, it’s hard to see how he is fit to lead the most powerful and popular sport in this country.

Imagine for a moment Goodell watching this video and then proceeding with the two-game suspension. It would mean that he either a) didn’t believe it was serious enough to warrant further action, b) was so afraid of the NFLPA that he didn’t want to fight the union on this, or c) wanted to protect the league’s image so badly that he figured it would never come out publicly.

If he didn’t think it was serious then he lacks some basic human emotions that most of us seemed to feel when we saw it.

If he didn’t think this was worth fighting the NFLPA then he badly miscalculated. This is, after all, the same guy that brazenly told the union that the league needed a larger cut of the revenue but wouldn’t provide any evidence of it. He has proven that no problem fighting the players when it suits his interest – even shutting down the league for it.

But even more, he would have insulted the union for believing that its leaders wouldn’t support a ban for Rice after seeing the video themselves.

And if he hoped that this wouldn’t come out, then he hasn’t been paying attention to the world in which we live. A world in which TMZ and other entities are willing to pay top dollar for juicy information. A world in which nude cell-phone pictures get leaked. Certainly he couldn’t have been so blind.

If Goodell saw that video before the public, he is not fit to be the commissioner of the NFL.

But I know what you’re thinking: what if he really didn’t see the video?

Good question. And it leads to a return query: why not? Why did Goodell not seek to investigate this as thoroughly as possible?

Unfortunately, that answer is incredibly murky. But it leads to problem that I have always believed is pervasive in professional sports. I may be a bit of a pessimist and the occasional conspiracy theorist, but I strongly believe there are a lot of ugly things going on in sports that we don’t want to know about.

We don’t always want to know where the money goes or who profits or how athletes, coaches and owners treat others. We sense that athletes are not exactly model citizens; we see movies in which they are entitled by coaches and boosters who fix their misdeeds and mistreatments of others. We know of the second, third and seventh chances given to talents like Lawrence Phillips and J.R. Rider.

It’s easy to write them off as exceptions, as guys who just couldn’t escape their demons or simply bad people. But we get uncomfortable when our heroes, especially the well-groomed ones, turn out to be no better or even worse.

But as I’ve said many times, we don’t know athletes, we only know their talents. Rice never struck me as a bad guy but interviews on TV don’t tell us anything. Neither do character testimonials from coaches or teammates – just look at what John Harbaugh and others said about Rice after the initial suspension. They learn early how to please the public by speaking for the cameras. They are taught the value of supporting their own and eliminating “distractions” in order to achieve the goals for which they are paid and praised.

We don’t know them. We know the image of them that the league wants us to see. And TMZ is spoiling that image. In fact, this was always the expected outcome of TMZ’s promise to get into the sports business a few years ago. It was planning to peek under the rug and we the fans are a little uncomfortable learning about what’s under there. We get pretty uncomfortable realizing that Richie Incognito and Ray Rice might not be lone wolves – they are just the stories that have gone viral.

Right now TMZ is going after big stories and big fish. But what if it decides to uncover every athlete who cheats or blows his money on garbage or doesn’t tip or whatever? I’m not sure we want to walk down this road unless we can walk far enough to actually clean up sports.

And does anyone think we can do that?

Goodell may or may not remain atop the NFL but he is more indicative of the problem than simply part of it. He runs a league that employs plenty of talented but severely flawed humans who have been entitled, empowered and enriched by the game. We pay them for those talents but we often don’t really want to know about the flaws. We seem too often to want to excuse them because we are rooting for laundry and we don’t truly know the players themselves. Maybe we want sports cleaned up, but Goodell has shown himself to be the wrong guy to do it.

Maybe his own entitlement prevents it.

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Roger Goodell has no excuse for mishandling Ray Rice’s punishment