Roger Goodell Continues to Have a Credibility ProblemAugust 4, 2022
Credibility is not like a set of car keys. When you lose it, you can’t just find it again and move on. This is the problem NFL commissioner Roger Goodell created for himself. Every investigation carries echoes of previous investigations, and so many of those were botched, dishonest or both.
The NFL’s report on the Dolphins should be read with this history in mind. Try it:
Goodell punished the Dolphins for tampering with Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (who once sued Goodell over a four-game suspension for deflating footballs).
Goodell also punished the Dolphins for tampering with former Saints coach Sean Payton (whom Goodell once suspended for a year for a bounty scandal, causing Payton to complain the investigation was “rigged” against him).
You would think a division rival trying to hire its starting quarterback during the season would infuriate the Patriots (who were underpunished for Spygate and then, in what looked like a makeup call, overpunished for Deflategate).
Meanwhile, Goodell cleared Miami of trying to lose games in 2019, a claim made by former coach Brian Flores (who is suing the league for racist hiring practices, an allegation Goodell dismissed roughly 30 seconds later as “without merit”).
Goodell also suspended Dolphins owner Stephen Ross until Oct. 17 and fined him $1.5 million, but not for telling his coach the team would be better off losing (even though Goodell’s own report says Ross told his coach the team would be better off losing). Goodell knows admitting a team tried to lose would be disastrous for the NFL. So Ross was kidding, you see. Goodell suspended Ross just for the tampering, which is precisely the level of scandal Goodell can take seriously without worrying about long-term damage to the league.
Goodell’s job is not easy. Any punishment he hands down will be controversial to some degree. But he has a long, clear pattern of prioritizing image and relationships over truth and fairness. It colors every intelligent reading of his actions.
In Goodell’s world, Flores’s allegations of racist hiring practices are so serious that they must be without merit. The notion that the Patriots cheated to win Super Bowls is so damaging that he had to destroy the tapes. Owners can be punished, but the punishment cannot be stifling or too embarrassing. When Goodell suspended Commanders owner Daniel Snyder, Snyder still attended Commanders games.
Sometimes Goodell goes to the incredible lengths of actually hiding the evidence. The Patriots’ spying scandal was one example. The sexual harassment accusations against Snyder and the Commanders was another. Goodell refused to release a written report, claiming he was protecting the survivors, even though their attorneys, Lisa Banks and Debra Katz, released a statement saying: “Let us be clear: Our clients do not wish any further ‘protection’ from you by withholding this report.”
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Goodell has spent most of his tenure dancing around harmful truths. The Ray Rice assault was so many scandals ago that mentioning it makes me feel like an old-timer yapping about Lance Alworth. Nonetheless, Goodell’s actions during that 2015 scandal remain revealing.
Briefly: Rice punched his then fiancé, Janay, in an elevator. He met with Goodell, who suspended him for two games. TMZ released the video. The Ravens released Rice. Goodell asked former FBI director Robert Mueller to investigate … but preemptively narrowed the scope so Mueller could not answer the question most damaging to Goodell: Did Rice tell the commissioner the truth in their meeting?
In that case, Goodell protected Goodell. In others, he protects the league’s revenue streams or most powerful people. His narrow focus on limiting the public relations hit damages his credibility with both the public and people in the league—and hampers him more than he seems to realize.
The NFL has now had two Black coaches—Flores and Hue Jackson—claim their owner wanted them to lose games. The allegations are highly believable. Everyone paying attention understood the Browns were tanking to maximize future draft capital, and when the Dolphins traded in-their-prime stars Minkah Fitzpatrick and Laremy Tunsil for draft choices, those were obvious lose-now, win-later moves. One could even argue the Browns and Dolphins were smart to do what they did. But both Flores and Jackson understood that asking coaches to lose games was ultimately going to cost the coach, and it did. They were both fired.
In his report on the Dolphins, Goodell makes the astounding argument that, while Ross repeatedly expressed his preference for a high draft position over wins, and once mentioned cash bonuses for losing games (in jest, Goodell says), it’s not a big deal because …
“The comments made by Mr. Ross did not affect Coach Flores’ commitment to win and the Dolphins competed to win every game.”
To sum up: Owner suggests his coach lose games. Coach tries to win anyway. Commissioner clears the owner of wrongdoing because the coach defied him. To top it off, the commissioner punishes the owner for less-damaging accusations and expresses his outrage, so the commissioner can still claim he put the owner in his place.
Meanwhile, the league continues to fail at hiring and promoting Black coaches at a fair rate—despite Goodell’s repeated attempts to fix the problem. I believe Goodell is sincere in his desire to improve the hiring rate of Black coaches. But he still has not gotten to the root of the problem, which is how owners perceive Black coaches. In this case, Ross showed no regard for what he was doing to Flores and his career.
Ross says he disagrees with Goodell’s ruling, but he will accept it. It is the same line Patriots owner Robert Kraft has used more than once. You are supposed to think they bitterly disagree and forget they are all protecting the same thing. Every NFL scandal seems to have a common theme: It gets as bad as Goodell can tolerate, and never worse.
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