clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The NFL isn't governed by rules. It's governed by Roger Goodell.

When it comes to decision-making in the NFL, it's down to one man.
When it comes to decision-making in the NFL, it's down to one man.
Alex Goodlett

The public's anger and frustration over the NFL's domestic violence problem — provoked by its handling of Ray Rice's assault on his then-fiancée (now wife) Janay Rice in February — has been focused on commissioner Roger Goodell. Women's groupssports commentators and former players have called for Goodell to resign. But when a reporter asked him on Friday if he'd ever considered resigning over the last few weeks, Goodell shook his head and said, "I have not."

Right after that press conference, ESPN investigative team Outside the Lines published a blockbuster article based on interviews with "more than 20 sources" inside the NFL, the Ravens, and Rice's friends. It shows how the NFL, and Rice's then-team the Baltimore Ravens, reacted to Rice's assault.

The article is damning. Among other things, it reveals that Ray Rice was honest about punching and knocking out Janay when he met with Goodell and league officials this summer. That means that NFL officials, who have said that Rice wasn't honest with the league and that they didn't know what had really happened until TMZ leaked a surveillance video of the assault in September, are lying.

The new article is adding even more fuel to the calls for Goodell to resign — for good reason. The report makes it clear that the NFL doesn't make its decisions based on policies and rules, but based on individuals and their relationships. And the only way to fix an institution governed by individuals, rather than rules, is to change the individuals in charge.

roger goodell hug

A hug from Roger Goodell is a powerful thing. (Al Bello/Getty)

The ESPN report shows that Goodell makes decisions based on favors to friends

The general impression that the new report gives is that the NFL isn't governed by policies — it's governed by relationships between people, especially between Goodell and team executives. For example, the report shows that Baltimore Ravens executives lobbied the NFL not to punish Rice harshly. (Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and NFL commissioner Goodell are, according to the report, "good friends" who like to talk about golf.) The league gave the team what it wanted, only suspending Rice for two games.

After the fact, Goodell implied to a friend that he hadn't made the decision himself, but had been talked into it by someone else — implying that he'd made the decision based on what his friends in the Ravens organization wanted.

Within days of his announcement, Goodell confided to someone in his inner circle that he wasn't sure he had done the right thing on the Rice suspension, according to two people familiar with the exchange. The person, who speaks with the commissioner regularly, said he came away from the conversation with the strong impression Goodell regretted that someone had talked him out of leveling a tougher penalty against Ray Rice.

As much as Goodell might have regretted giving Rice a light suspension "as a favor to his good friend" the Ravens owner, the report says that "playing favorites among the owners" is standard for Goodell. (How convinced are the owners that Goodell's decisions are influenced by his friendships? One owner accused him of rigging a coin toss about which team would have the first home game in a new stadium.)

Even the "independent" investigation into the NFL's response to the Rice incident, ESPN reports, will be conducted by former FBI head Robert S. Mueller III — who used to work at the same law firm as the president of the Baltimore Ravens, and helped the NFL negotiate a contract with DirecTV. Confusingly, Goodell's also appointed the owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants — who the ESPN report calls "two Goodell allies" — to "oversee" Mueller's investigation.

roger goodell and friends

Roger Goodell with some of his closest team-owner friends — including the two who are overseeing the "independent" investigation. (Jonathan Ernst/Getty)

Why the league's critics don't care about the NFL's promised policy changes

Instead of acknowledging the calls for Goodell to resign, the league has responded to the controversy, so far, by changing its own rules and policies for dealing with violence against women. In addition to the independent investigation, it's announced a new — and much harsher — discipline policy for players accused of domestic violence.

There's a massive disconnect between the NFL's response, and the public's outrage. The NFL has been acting as if it follows its written policies, so, in order to fix its problems, it just needs to fix the rules. But those calling for Goodell to resign suspect that the NFL isn't actually governed by its policies — instead, it's governed by arbitrary decisions by individual people. So to fix the problem, the people making the decisions have to go.

The new ESPN report shows that the critics are right about the way the NFL works. The article doesn't depict Goodell and other league officials consulting the rulebook, or looking at past cases of player discipline and making a decision in Rice's case based on precedent. Instead, it shows a league where owners lobby Goodell to do things, and if Goodell is close enough with the owner, he agrees.

When the NFL promises to change its written policies about domestic violence, it might be promising to completely change the way it works as an organization. More likely, it's promising to go from one set of rules that are ignored (depending on how close Goodell is to the owners), to another set of rules that will be ignored.

There are some institutional scandals that aren't about the rules and procedures being ignored by powerful people — they're about the rules and procedures, themselves, being flawed. In these cases, senior officials may or may not lose their jobs as a symbolic gesture, but it's more important to make sure the rules get changed.

But the NFL suffers from the opposite problem. It doesn't matter what the rules are because the people running the league routinely ignore them. Goodell and his friends, right now, are more powerful than the league's policies.

The NFL is clearly in damage-control mode right now. It appears to be interested in getting the story out of the headlines, rather than confronting the problem itself. But getting rid of Roger Goodell does both: it's clearly the only way the NFL is going to appease its critics, and it's also the first step to making genuine changes. The league might fire Goodell for the wrong reasons, but it would absolutely be doing the right thing.

Further viewing: The NFL has a domestic-violence problem. So does the USA:

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.