As the Ray Rice situation continues to unravel in public — and his team takes the field for the first time since he was cut — the spotlight on this story has now become tightly focused on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
By this point, everyone knows what Rice did and most agree that his current punishment (the cancellation of his contract and indefinite suspension) is appropriate. But it's the first punishment — a two-game ban and $500,000 fine handed down in July — that has everyone questioning the NFL's pattern of discipline. And as commissioner, no one is more responsible for that pattern than Goodell.
In an interview on Wednesday with CBS News, Goodell said that no one in the NFL, to my knowledge" had seen the now widely-spread videotape of Rice striking his wife, Janay, (then his fiancée) before Monday. Goodell had seen an earlier tape of Rice dragging her unconscious body out of a casino elevator, but despite that, said "that when we met with Ray Rice and his representatives, it was ambiguous about what actually happened" before that moment. So he said, "we took action, albeit insufficient action." After seeing the new tape, the Ravens quickly cut Rice and the suspension was increased.
Late on Thursday, two news reports shed some light on Goodell's thinking surrounding the July suspension, but may also end up contradicting his earlier statements. Both stories center on a meeting that Goodell held with Ray and Janay Rice on June 16, a meeting that ultimately determined Rice's punishment.
The first, written by Kevin Clark in The Wall Street Journal, is based on details provided by an unnamed NFL owner who says that Goodell came away from that meeting believing Janay Rice considered herself at least partially responsible for the incident. Therefore, he concluded that to come down more harshly on her husband would appear to be a challenge to her version of events, "and would have come across as an indictment of her character." Many observers have interpreted this story as a transparent attempt by the NFL to put the onus for the insufficient punishment directly on the victim.
However, the second report, from Don Van Natta Jr. of ESPN, adds another dimension. In that article, four sources confirm that Rice told Goodell in no uncertain terms, that he punched Janay in the face and knocked her unconscious. One of the anonymous sources stated, "there was no ambiguity about what happened" — a direct challenge to Goodell's earlier statement.
Note, however, the careful wording of all of Goodell's previous statements on the matter. According to the Journal, "Goodell also said he left the meeting believing that Janay Rice had become unconscious because she had fallen during the scuffle." In the video, she does appear to hit her head when she falls, so that could still technically be correct. (Even though she falls because Ray Rice punched her.) The league said they asked for a copy of the tape and never received it. A law enforcement official says he sent a copy to an NFL executive... but without being asked. On the day it arrived, Goodell was in Augusta, Georgia, attending The Masters golf tournament, so he wasn't in the New York office. The NFL did not ask the Atlantic City casino for the tape, because "our understanding" was that New Jersey law prohibited such an action. The State Attorney General's office says that's not true. "To his knowledge," no one in the league office saw tape. Goodell's knowledge is obviously not complete.
In reviewing each of these statements, Goodell has potentially revealed himself to be wrong, perhaps even incompetent... but not a liar. Maybe he really didn't see the tape. Maybe he was confused on the details after the meeting. Maybe he did get some bad legal advice. But he also appears to have said and done all the right things to avoid letting the blame fall on him and the NFL. If he didn't know everything, perhaps it's because he chose not to know.
However, even conceding all these points to him, the question still remains why, given what he (and the public) did know, Goodell chose to suspend Rice for just two games? At the time of the suspension, here's what was known publicly: Rice had been arrested. There was a police report saying he struck his fiancée with his hand. He had entered a pretrial diversion program to avoid prosecution and jail time. Both of the Rices told Goodell in person, there had been a fight, that ended with her unconscious. There was another video of Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée out of a casino elevator. Goodell knew all that, and still went with two games.
But there had also been a press conference when Janay Rice (then Palmer) sat beside Ray and offered support, even suggesting she could have been partially to blame for the incident. Van Natta Jr. also reported that Janay Rice asked Goodell not to harm her husband's career, seconding the impression given by Kevin Clark's story. Yet, even before the second video came out, Goodell admitted the suspension was not adequate by altering the NFL's policy on domestic abuse. Although, none of the details of Rice case explain why Greg Hardy, a defensive end who plays for the Carolina Panthers, was never suspended, despite actually being convicted of assaulting a former girlfriend over the summer. Except that it wasn't caught on tape.
The prevailing wisdom seems to be that Goodell is either incompetent, a liar, or — worst of all — a dissembler, well-versed in the art of plausible deniability. None of these options looks good for him, but neither would be as bad as the perception that he deliberately overlooked a serious crime to protect the reputation of the league.
Given the inconsistent and hamfisted manner in which this investigation appears to have been dealt with, many are now calling for Goodell's ouster. It's hard to imagine those people getting their wish, but it's also hard to imagine Goodell's reputation, or the league's, ever fully recovering from this.