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Ben Volin | On Football

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell under fire for handling of Ray Rice situation

Some detractors of Roger Goodell (above) wonder why it took the NFL and the Ravens so long to release Ray Rice.John Raoux/Associated Press

Roger Goodell stood in front of the 32 National Football League owners in a hotel ballroom in March — 32 of the richest and most powerful men in the country — and stressed the importance of respect and responsibility.

“With more success comes more responsibility for all of us to step up and lead,” Goodell said to the room. “Respect for our game and those that came before us. Respect for each other — teams, opponents, and game officials. Respect for our fans, our lifeblood. Respect in our workplaces for the diversity that makes us stronger. Respect for our communities and the important role we play in those communities. Let’s embrace the opportunity to make a difference. We’re expected to do that.”


Now Goodell is under fire for violating his own directive.

Goodell, forever “defending The Shield” of the NFL and protecting the league and its image at all costs, is instead the one inflicting the damage as the NFL wraps up one of its worst weeks ever off the field:

A graphic video of Baltimore’s Ray Rice slugging his then-fiancée in the face and knocking her unconscious. Reports that the NFL received the tape months ago, despite Goodell claiming otherwise. Accusations that Goodell and the Ravens knowingly looked the other way when it came to Rice’s transgression and gave him a laughable two-game suspension. Two other players in trouble for domestic violence — Carolina’s Greg Hardy and San Francisco’s Ray McDonald — continuing to play despite their transgressions. And now Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson deactivated for Sunday’s game against the Patriots after being indicted in Texas on a charge of reckless or negligent injury to his 4-year-old child.

The NFL launched an internal investigation to determine how much Goodell did know, or should have known, about what was on the Rice videotape. But for many outsiders, it doesn’t matter. Their mind on Goodell is made up.


“The only workable solution is for Roger Goodell to resign,” said Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. “New leadership must come in with a specific charge to transform the culture of violence against women that pervades the NFL.”

Goodell’s message of respect rings hollow in light of the initial two-game suspension he gave Rice for the fight Rice had with his girlfriend at an Atlantic City hotel in February. And his credibility is hanging in the balance following a report Wednesday by the Associated Press that contradicts Goodell’s contention that the NFL couldn’t obtain the video from law enforcement.

Only after TMZ released the full video Monday morning of Rice knocking out Janay Palmer and dragging her body out of an elevator did Goodell suspend Rice indefinitely. The Ravens, who very publicly supported him throughout the situation, reversed course Tuesday and cut him.

Many of Goodell’s detractors wonder what took him and the Ravens so long.

“For us domestic violence advocates, we didn’t need to see the video that came out Monday to know that something really horrible had happened to that victim,” said Maureen Gallagher, policy director of Jane Doe Inc., a statewide coalition of programs in Massachusetts. “It’s unfortunate that the public has to see the actual violent images just to prove that something has happened.”

Goodell has faced plenty of heat in his eight-plus years as NFL commissioner — the concussion crisis, the Bountygate scandal, Aaron Hernandez being indicted on murder charges, the 2011 lockout, and more. But his handling of the Rice situation, and the NFL’s seemingly growing domestic violence problem, is quickly becoming his biggest misstep.


League’s owners support him

For now, Goodell appears to have the support of the owners. Patriots owner Robert Kraft said Tuesday that Goodell’s mea culpa “was excellent.” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Goodell showed a good ability to “recover” by extending Rice’s suspension indefinitely. Giants owner John Mara said Goodell has done everything properly, and Washington owner Daniel Snyder backed Goodell with a statement Saturday.

Of course, the owners are very happy with Goodell overall, as franchise values have skyrocketed under his watch. The Buffalo Bills, one of the league’s lower-valued teams, sold for a league-record $1.4 billion last week.

“The notion that the league should have gone around law enforcement to obtain the video is, in my opinion, misguided,” Mara said Wednesday. “As is the notion that the commissioner’s job is in jeopardy.”

But those statements were made before the AP’s report that Goodell, or at least someone in the NFL office, was sent the video. If the AP’s report is true, it could doom Goodell.

“If the NFL had the video in April — or at any time — then the commissioner never should have said otherwise,” said Sandy Lish, founder of the Castle Group, a Boston PR firm with several Fortune 500 companies as clients. “We’re still finding out what they had, and when. If he wasn’t telling the truth, it’s going to be a big problem for him and the NFL. It will be impossible to backpedal on this.”


Mara and Steelers owner Art Rooney will oversee the investigation, which will be conducted by former FBI director Robert Mueller and will have the full cooperation from Goodell and anyone else in the league office, the NFL said. Mueller, the director of the FBI from 2001-13, has Boston ties — he was a prosecutor in the US Attorney’s Office in the District of Massachusetts in the 1980s when gangster Whitey Bulger claims he was given immunity.

But whether Mueller’s investigation will be authentic or simply for public relations purposes remains to be seen. Mueller is a partner at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm WilmerHale, which is well-connected to the NFL. WilmerHale helped the NFL negotiate its Sunday Ticket package with DirecTV, and has represented Snyder. Ravens president Dick Cass also used to be a partner at the firm.

And the public still is skeptical that the NFL did everything in its power to obtain the video. If TMZ could get the video, why couldn’t the NFL? Rice’s lawyer had the tape — couldn’t Goodell have threatened further punishment if Rice didn’t hand it over? The NFL says no, but others say yes.

Paul Loriquet, director of communications for the New Jersey attorney general, told TMZ “it’s not illegal” for a casino to show or provide the video to a private entity in an ongoing investigation. Other attorneys concurred.


“There’s no question in my mind that [Goodell] would have the opportunity to ask that all reports and videos and other evidence that would be relevant to the commissioner’s investigation be turned over to his office,” Steven D. Silverman, a Baltimore-area attorney who has represented several Ravens players, told the Baltimore Sun.

Issue much talked-about

Just last week in Washington, D.C., vice president Joe Biden hosted a two-day conference to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the passing of the Violence Against Women Act, to talk about how far the country has come on women’s violence issues in the last two decades, and what more needs to be done.

Instead, disturbingly, the conversation was dominated by the Rice situation.

“It’s so ironic,” said Ruth Glenn, executive director for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Of course, it’s all we’ve been talking about.

“Certainly, the NFL has taken some encouraging actions in the last two weeks. I guess we’re just disappointed that it has taken this long to get the NFL to this position.”

Glenn is referring to the domestic violence policy announced Aug. 28 by Goodell. The policy, made in conjunction with the NCADV and several other national domestic violence organizations, created much stricter punishments for players involved in domestic violence incidents — a six-game suspension for a first offense and minimum one-year ban for a second offense, although Goodell can take mitigating factors into account when doling out punishment. The new policy also provides for more domestic violence training and programs for players when they come into the league as rookies, and the creation of outreach programs for families in need.

“I feel positive about where we might be moving with this. I think that’s the more important message,” Glenn said. “Let’s move on to the future and educate everyone about domestic violence.”

Policy still rings a bit hollow

Yet once again, Goodell’s new policy rings a little hollow.

In Carolina, Hardy has been allowed to play despite recently being found guilty on two counts of misdemeanor domestic violence from an incident in the spring. And in San Francisco, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said he has “zero tolerance” for domestic violence, but he allowed McDonald to play last Sunday despite being arrested for allegedly hitting his fiancée Aug. 31. The Vikings, though, deactivated Peterson for Sunday’s game and have not decided upon his future.

According to a USA Today database, McDonald is the 85th NFL player arrested for a domestic incident since 2000.

“Ray McDonald is not Ray Rice,” 49ers CEO Jed York said. “As a society, we have a sense of saying, ‘You didn’t do it with Ray Rice right away, so you need to overdo it with Ray McDonald, or whoever else it is.’ I don’t believe that’s the country we live in. I don’t think that’s a fair way to approach it.”

If the NFL truly wants to get back in the public’s good graces, experts say, Goodell needs to make authentic overtures toward spreading awareness about domestic violence.

He has a good opportunity next month. While October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the NFL is about to embark on the sixth year of its A Crucial Catch campaign, in which the league accents its stadiums and uniforms with pink accessories and sells pink merchandise to raise money for breast cancer research, October also is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence created a petition last Thursday — before the Rice tape was released — to see NFL teams wear purple in October to bring awareness to the issue of domestic violence, in addition to wearing pink.

Whatever Goodell and the NFL do about domestic violence, it must be authentic.

“They need to work with some credible organizations and put together a campaign to really provide training,” Lish said. “They need to make clear that domestic violence, in whatever form it takes, is morally wrong and won’t be stood for in the NFL.”

But while many fans, players, and observers believe Goodell should take the fall for his handling of the Rice situation, some of the domestic violence organizations believe Goodell has taken several positive steps in regards to the league’s new policies and punishments.

“It’s not about being angry. It’s about seeing progress, and I think we’re seeing progress,” said Gallagher. “There’s still things that they have committed to do that now have to be implemented. But we’re opening up a much broader conversation in the public — an opportunity to talk about not only accountability and suspensions, but what other work the NFL can do to prevent domestic and sexual violence.”

Ben Volin can be reached at