Without a legal background and armed only with an economics degree from Washington & Jefferson College, Roger Goodell is no judge. I might have more faith in Judge Judy or Simon Cowell to rule on the never-ending backlog of criminal cases in the NFL domain. But the team owners overlooked this flaw when naming Goodell as commissioner to succeed Paul Tagliabue, an attorney by trade, and now, eight years later, Judge Roger is being scrutinized for his decision in the Ray Rice case … as juxtaposed against his pending decision in the Aldon Smith case … and the Josh Gordon case … and the Greg Hardy case … and the Jim Irsay case.
And whatever else might happen in this sketchy league of his, which, at the going rate of arrests, calculates to an over-under of three in the next week.
Business couldn’t be better in the NFL, a runaway $10-billion-a-year enterprise with ratings among the highest in American TV history. But Goodell is an utter failure as a personal conduct czar, failing to lay down a deterrent during his tenure with punishments that have been inconsistent and wishy-washy. Sometimes he’s too soft. Sometimes he’s too harsh. Sometimes a ruling makes no sense in relation to the accepted social weight of another offense. His enforcement plate continues to be full, as it is after every turbulent offseason, and if he at least can say there are no murder cases this time, he does have disturbing problems that underline more than ever that players and even owners don’t fear the Wrath Of Roger enough to avoid trouble.
The more files he has on his desk, the more vulnerable Goodell is to appearing erratic in his case-by-case decisions. Judge Roger announced that court is in session by suspending Rice, the Baltimore running back, for two games without pay after a February altercation with then-fiancee/now-wife Janay Palmer at an Atlantic City casino. Goodell was ripped immediately for being too lenient with Rice and not taking domestic violence seriously, and his thought process for that decision better be in place when he eventually rules on Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy, who was found guilty by a judge for assaulting his former girlfriend and communicating threats.
The last reputation Goodell wants, in a violent league with life-and-death ramifications, is someone cushy on domestic violence. Is two games — one-eighth of Rice’s regular work year — enough of a punishment? The question deserves more than a simplistic, reactionary answer. While it’s obvious the league has a domestic violence problem, just as society has a domestic violence problem, anyone commenting on the issue first must acknowledge an immediate hole in your perspective: You were not there to see the incident. Thus, you cannot be sure you have any idea what happened and, unless there is a guilty plea by an offender, you cannot assume to know the context and entirety of the events. As the father of two wonderful daughters, I abhor domestic abuse, yet that didn’t stop a woman four years ago from accusing me of crimes I did not commit.
Nor did it stop the media from reporting the woman’s lies as truths, relying on police reports that were one-sided, irresponsible, shoddy and, quite possibly, corrupt in a Los Angeles legal system known for its filth. The truth was, my accuser had an alcohol problem and had been on a two-day bender. The day before, she had fallen twice on a boat in front of five witnesses, myself included, and sustained bruises. The next night, she was drunk again, and after too many frank discussions with her mother 3,000 miles away about how to help her, I decided to stop helping. This led to a public argument, and instead of instantly heading home, I unwisely chose to stay and try to help, knowing she lived in a shady part of a Los Angeles beach community. A third-party witness in a car, seeing me trying stop her from running toward a dangerous beach after midnight because she was talking about committing suicide, called 911 and assumed, as most do, that the man was beating up a woman.
I was arrested. I had to face a dishonest Century City lawyer, Leonard Levine, who continues to cover himself in mud: He is defending ex-NFL star Darren Sharper against allegations that he date-raped eight women in several states. “Lenny is all about the money,’’ said one of my private investigators, who once worked for Levine and said he is capable of lying about anything in a courtroom.
I never spent a day in jail, despite absurd Internet headlines that I was facing 12 years. I never pleaded guilty, settling for a misdemeanor no-contest plea only because I didn’t want my daughters dealing with the reckless perpetuation of lies in the media — by both sleazy sites and mainstream outlets — and also because I didn’t want to spend more than a half-million dollars in legal fees. I did a handful of community hours and taught older people how to read and use computers. I accepted life as unfair and moved on, but corporate bosses at ESPN and AOL, seeing a chance to make an example of me (and, in AOL’s case, wiggle out of an expensive long-term contract while eliminating its sports website), never bothered to do their homework because it was convenient not to. I’m sure none of what I’m writing here jibes with what you may have read because many media people also are lazy and don’t do their homework.
In the Rice case, we keep seeing a TMZ video of Rice removing what appears to be an unconscious Palmer from an elevator. But despite the reported presence of videotape that shows he struck her in the elevator, the tape has not been made public, assuming it exists. If Rice struck or shoved her in unprovoked rage and without an extenuating circumstance — or if any man hits a woman, or if any woman hits a man — it is an unconscionable sin, and, yes, Rice then should have been suspended for the season if not banned from the NFL for life. But he has not admitted to hitting Palmer, pleading not guilty to a third-degree charge of aggravated assault and avoiding trial by entering an intervention program. Beyond that, Palmer not only refused to press charges, she married Rice after the episode. So, without a conviction and without knowing exactly what went down in the elevator, what was Goodell to do?
Was he to assume? Don’t assume.
Or you become the first syllable of assume.
The Rices say they love each other and are trying to build a long-term relationship. Before the episode, Ray Rice was known as an upstanding citizen with a clean record, and he has had no issues since. Ravens brass, from owner Steve Bisciotti and general manager Ozzie Newsome to coach John Harbaugh, have defended Rice’s character and can judge from the context of personally knowing the couple. Hasn’t Rice suffered enough? The TV networks have shown the elevator video on a non-stop reel for months. He has lost his reputation and had to endure a miserable news conference with Janay in May. He won’t get another endorsement, and another running back may have the starting role for keeps when Rice returns in Week 3. So, after meeting with Rice last month, why should Goodell pile on? Just to appease media people with sweeping agendas — “THE NFL’S DOMESTIC VIOLENCE PROBLEM,’’ by Jane McManus of espnW.com — that throw all of the league’s cases in a blender and don’t allow for the possibility of other factors in some cases? Yes, some football players beat up and terrorize women. They should be punished harshly, kicked out of the league, thrown in jail.
But to make a life example of someone who had one terrible night, when his wife is willing to make amends … two games is enough. If Hardy and other domestic violence offenders had more than one terrible night, then Goodell should rule accordingly. In a letter to Rice, the commissioner wrote, “I believe that you are sincere in your desire to learn from this matter and move forward toward a healthy relationship and successful career. I am now focused on your actions and expect you to demonstrate by those actions that you are prepared to fulfill those expectations.” Translated, Rice has been given one chance, and if screws up, he should find another line of work.
The problem, in taking a sensitive approach to one case, is that Goodell will be obliterated in the media if he’s harder on those who’ve hurt or endangered no one but themselves. Last year, Denver linebacker Von Miller was suspended six games with substance-abuse issues that included an unsuccessful attempt to hide a dirty drug sample with the help of a urine collector. Ray Rice, two games. Von Miller, six games. Does that jibe? Well, you could flip this into a competitive-integrity argument and say Miller is a cheater who tried to undermine the league, while Rice had a relationship problem that had nothing to do with the league’s integrity on a Sunday afternoon. Basically, these arguments can be flipped however you’d like.
But Goodell doesn’t have that luxury. It looks as if he thinks Adderall and marijuana use — he has meted out tougher penalties for those matters — is a bigger issue than domestic violence. He’s coming off more like Mr. Magoo sometimes than a measured referee.
You might say the crimes of Gordon and Smith don’t rise to the level of hitting a woman. Yet, consider that both face lengthy suspensions for multiple missteps. Gordon has been suspended twice for substance-abuse issues and now has to answer to a DUI arrest. Smith also has dealt with substance-abuse issues — Goodell allowed him to return to the 49ers last season after a month in rehab — but he also has pleaded no contest to three felony weapons charges and two misdemeanor DUI counts while dropping a bomb reference during a security check at the Los Angeles airport last spring. When drunken driving is involved, you’re endangering others. So, yes, with the repeated problems, Goodell has every right to suspend Gordon and Smith for lengthier terms.
Then there are those who say alcohol and drug problems should be considered a disease and that an addict should be viewed with sympathy. Upon reporting to 49ers camp, Smith told reporters he has been sober since September, when he was busted for drunken driving the second time. “I’ve been able to maintain, and it’s going good,” Smith said. “I’m in the best shape I’ve been in coming into a camp, and my mind is probably in the best spot it’s been in, so I’m feeling great.”
But maintaining sobriety shouldn’t wipe away the past. That is the argument of Irsay, who, as a team owner, should be held to a higher standard than players. Irsay faces an Aug. 27 court date for operating a vehicle while intoxicated and possessing pills for which he didn’t have a prescription. Irsay says he’s an addict and has shown a disturbing defiance with little remorse. Has Irsay hurt anyone but himself? Maybe. The Indianapolis Star reported Irsay owned a residence, through a team-related trust, that housed a woman who died from a drug overdose.
Irsay, Gordon, Smith — drunken drivers can kill people.
So why wouldn’t they deserve stiff suspensions?
Sad to say, the day is not coming when Roger Goodell has a clean plate. This is life in the 21st century, in a league with its share of rogues. But what’s astonishing is that Goodell has a personal conduct code in place — and no one seems to care. There are too many cases, too many rulings for him to look anything but inconsistent and skittish. He has not instilled the Fear Of Roger, and regardless of how many billions he is generating for the owners, a miserable reality is surfacing about his commissionership.
He is not protecting the NFL shield.