Goodell Under Siege
NEW YORK — The Ray Rice tornado has been swirling for three days now, and the twists and turns have been fast and furious. Have you ever seen a story go so frenetic in three days? As Wednesday evening began, one NFL owner told me he didn’t think NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could survive the latest turn in the Rice scandal.
Four hours later, the NFL appointed a former director of the FBI, Robert S. Mueller III, to launch an independent investigation of the league’s handling of the Rice case. The league said the investigation will be made public when it’s finished, the same way independent investigator Ted Wells’ report on the Richie Incognito bullying scandal was made public earlier this year. “Commissioner Goodell pledged that director Mueller will have the full cooperation of NFL personnel and access to all NFL records," the NFL statement said.
Just before 11 p.m. Eastern Time, minutes after the league announced the Mueller appointment, one league owner told me, “This is a good first step. But we need to be prepared for any outcome."
And the league needs to be prepared for the belief that, no matter what Mueller’s report says, many will think the NFL has whitewashed the Rice story, and that Goodell or his prominent underlings already had seen the videotape of Rice knocking Janay Palmer unconscious before TMZ released it Monday. That’s the level of public distrust in the NFL and in anyone who works there today.
One of the craziest days in recent league history—there have been a few of those lately—reached a frenzy Wednesday late afternoon. News came from the Associated Press that a law-enforcement official in New Jersey sent a tape of Rice’s attack to an NFL employee on April 9. The law-enforcement source played the AP a voicemail from the NFL employee in which she confirms receipt of the damaging video. Repeatedly, the league has insisted that no one from the NFL had seen the video from inside the elevator before the TMZ release. If that voicemail turns out to be real, someone inside the NFL has some explaining to do to the highest levels of the league. And if it’s real, the league will have to convince the public that somehow the tape wasn’t seen by Goodell, anyone with access to him, or by the top executives of the league. That will be tough to do.
I am starting to get a sick feeling about how out of control this is getting," one owner said, “but I am standing by Roger. He has been great for our league.
The AP report came before 6 p.m. Wednesday, and Goodell cancelled an appearance in Charlotte at an event featuring Carolina Panthers owner and Goodell loyalist Jerry Richardson. League officials then hunkered down in the NFL’s Park Avenue offices until after 11 p.m. plotting strategy and planning for the investigative handoff to Mueller.
The sense I got after talking to six prominent team executives Wednesday night was that Goodell’s job would be in trouble only if he was found to have participated in a coverup of the Rice investigation, or if he lied about never having seen the videotape of the former Baltimore running back’s assault of his then-fiancée Palmer in an Atlantic City elevator last February. We know what the public thinks now. As the New York Daily News screamed in a front-page, boldfaced headline this morning: “National Football Liars.” If the AP report is accurate and the league did indeed receive the video, but the footage somehow never reached Goodell, then that would appear to be a stunning lack of institutional control for a man whose authority has been unquestioned since he took over the NFL in 2006.
The public and media can think the league lied. But in terms of Goodell’s status as commissioner, the question is whether the owners have lost confidence in him. And in taking the temperature of owners or owners’ reps Wednesday night, I got this sense: Goodell has so much goodwill in the bank in their eyes that there’s no way—without definitive proof that the commissioner lied—they’d throw him, and his $44 million annual compensation, to the wolves. The goodwill includes a collective bargaining agreement with the players association through 2020 and lucrative TV contracts that pay each team about $150 million per year.
Nevertheless, the owners are not pleased that after the first week of the league’s 95th season, twice in three days one of the top stories on the evening news is about a scandal the NFL simply cannot contain. “I am starting to get a sick feeling about how out of control this is getting," one owner said Wednesday night, “but I am standing by Roger. He has been great for our league."
One reason so many owners were steadfast behind Goodell is that many of them spoke to the commissioner after he announced the NFL's new policy on domestic violence two weeks ago. Goodell, this owner said, told him he just didn’t know exactly what happened in the elevator because he never saw visual evidence of it. Until it’s proven to this owner—at least—that Goodell was lying, he said he’s not going to lose faith in him. Another prominent club official said he “believes strongly" that Goodell will survive.
The NFL also announced Wednesday night that the investigation will be overseen by Giants president and CEO John Mara and Steelers president Art Rooney II. All week, the NFL has said it requested the video—which shows Rice hitting Palmer forcibly and causing her to fall to the floor of the elevator unconscious—but never received it. For a league with tremendous reach, it seems bizarre that a media outlet can obtain the video and the most powerful sports league in America cannot—particularly when Rice’s attorney had the video as well. “No one in the NFL, to my knowledge,” had seen the video, Goodell told CBS News on Tuesday.
But the public has been unswayed. A Connecticut senator, Richard Blumenthal, said Wednesday that if the AP report is true, “commissioner Goodell must go, for the good of the NFL and its fans.” Blumenthal, and detractors of this investigation, will be skeptical of the fact that Mueller’s law firm, WilmerHale of Washington, D.C., has strong ties to the NFL. For one, it is where Dick Cass used to be a partner. Cass, of course, is president of the Ravens and Ray Rice’s former boss, and the Ravens are in hot water for not digging hard enough in the Rice investigation.
But the only ones who can make Goodell go are the NFL owners. And Wednesday night, they had no appetite for it. Now we’ll wait to see if Mueller’s report exonerates Goodell. There will be more twists to this story before then.