I just keep thinking about a Friday afternoon in a Manhattan hotel, when a last-minute news conference during a notorious news-dump time slot brought NFL commissioner Roger Goodell out of hiding. It was September 2014, and I remember those 45 minutes as though they happened yesterday — 45 minutes in which Goodell vowed the NFL would right so many of the wrongs exposed by the Ray Rice domestic violence case.
There would be new committees and independent investigations, there would be great resolve to uncover the investigative shortcomings that saw Rice suspended a mere two games before video of his heinous elevator attack on his then-fiancee went public. There would be a different future for the NFL, a more stringent policy for players involved in domestic violence, and Goodell would be there to lead it.
I keep thinking about that now, four years later, as those promises are continually exposed as empty and shallow. We now spend yet another news cycle wondering how the NFL could fail so miserably in an investigation of an accused player — this time Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt — how a video of his violent incident was released, once again, by the website TMZ, while once again, the NFL looks on, feigning outrage and declaring frustration, asking the public to believe it could do nothing to uncover such evidence.
But where the league said it was unable, I say it was unwilling. If the years since the Rice incident have shown us anything, it’s how much the league would rather hide, obfuscate, and hope visual evidence doesn’t surface, a PR strategy rooted in a willingness to wait and react if necessary rather than be proactive and find it. That stands in direct contrast to what Goodell promised four years ago.
The embattled commissioner took the mea culpa route hard that day, positioning himself as contrite and remorseful over his handling of the Rice case, casting himself as a new, enlightened leader in the fight against this societal scourge, patting himself on the back for a willingness to use the power of the NFL’s almighty shield to force his way to the front of the line.
“At our best, the NFL sets an example that makes a positive difference,” he said, and in handing the reins of the league’s ensuing investigation into what went wrong to former FBI director Robert Mueller, Goodell promised to listen and follow whatever Mueller’s findings might be.
“Any shortcoming he finds in how we dealt with the situation will lead to swift actions,” Goodell told the conference room full of reporters. “The same mistakes cannot be repeated. We will do whatever is necessary to ensure we are thorough in our review process and our conclusions reliable.”
“We conclude that there was substantial information about the incident that should have put the league on notice of a need to undertake a more thorough investigation to obtain available evidence of precisely what occurred inside the elevator,” Mueller’s team wrote in January 2015. “Had the league done so, it may have uncovered additional information about the incident, possibly including the in-elevator video prior to its public release.”
And more: “The league could have, but did not, do the following: . . . did not contact any of the police officers involved in responding to or investigating the incident . . . did not contact the Revel [casino] in an effort to obtain a copy of or at least see the video . . . did not periodically check with the Ravens to determine whether the team was in possession of additional information . . . did not contact Rice’s lawyer either while the criminal case was active or after the [pretrial intervention] disposition . . . nor did the league investigators contact Rice himself at any point in time . . . did not go back to [Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office] or the Revel after May 20, when Rice’s PTI application was approved, to see if more information might then be available to the league.”
All that was supposed to change, yet here we were Sunday, watching Hunt on ESPN as he told reporter Lisa Salters that the NFL never contacted him for an interview about the incident in February, hearing the NFL admit it was never able to reach the woman involved in the altercation at a hotel, and wondering yet again why the NFL insisted it could not obtain possession of the security footage while TMZ could.
The Chiefs were no better at investigating, taking Hunt’s word at the time that he did not hit the woman (more, that he did not even leave his room) and releasing him when the video came out not because of its content, but because he lied to them.
In a week that saw the Redskins claim another arrested abuser off waivers so fast that Reuben Foster didn’t even have time to miss a paycheck, there is a sad, frustrating connection between the two. The league still doesn’t know what to do about incidents like this other than talk a good game. The zero-tolerance policy rewritten in the Rice aftermath was supposed to include an initial six-game suspension for any offender, but that rarely happens. Talking strong but acting weak ultimately serves only to weaken.
Monday morning in the NFL has always been for the armchair quarterbacks. Watch the highlights from another impressive Patriots win, dissect the lowlights of another unsurprising Steelers loss, speculate on who might replace Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, and take your best guess on who else might eventually join Aaron Rodgers’s former head coach on the unemployment line.
But in the midst of our football frenzy, how about we also remember what happened this weekend with Hunt, and keep talking about that, too?
Let’s not let NFL leadership off the hook. Because if the league has shown us anything across these past four post-Rice years, it’s how little has actually changed in the league’s desire or willingness to position itself as a true advocate in breaking the cycle of domestic violence.
Of course the NFL cannot solve this deep, dark societal issue on its own. But it can be such a better example of leadership than it is right now, can do such a better job fulfilling the promise of change it made four years ago.