When Scott Pelley appears on Thursday Night Football, when James Brown inveighs against feminizing words like “sissy” — well, we’ve entered a new and interesting phase of commenting on sports. Here are three thoughts on how the press has covered Roger Goodell:
1. During the Donald Sterling fiasco, I argued that the sportswriting class had gone from holding a range of political opinions to fusing into a single, united liberal bloc. You can see that in the coverage of Goodell, too. Reading sports this week is like being on a Nation magazine cruise.
Of course, no one expects a sportswriter to stick up for domestic abuse. But it’s striking that there’s a near consensus not just that Goodell’s two-game suspension of Ray Rice was too lenient, but that Goodell ought to resign. You’d expect such a call from the National Organization for Women. Now it’s shared by ESPNers Bill Simmons, Keith Olbermann, and Jason Whitlock; the Washington Post’s Mike Wise; Bleacher Report’s Will Carroll; Canada’s Sportsnet; even the king of the takeout, Frank Deford. MMQB’s Peter King — who apparently misreported the NFL’s handling of the Rice tape — dodged “fairly shrill cries” for his own resignation.
Most of the dissents in the Rice case haven’t come from the right. They’ve come from the left. Whitlock and The Nation’s Dave Zirin argued that endlessly playing the elevator tape “re-victimized” Janay Rice. (During the Sterling imbroglio, Whitlock argued that surreptitious recordings were by their nature unfair.)
What happened to the sports press? Two things. The lethal snipers at Deadspin and other sites give covering fire to lefty sportswriters who might leave behind the old nonpartisan tone. There’s no longer a punishment for being liberal, and there’s a lot of potential reward on Twitter. Moreover, writers who don’t toe the line know they’ll be punished for speaking up. I suspect that a lot of semi-political types feign agreement or don’t comment at all.
Then there’s the crack-up of local newspapers, which for decades incubated writers whose politics were as ragged as a congressional backbencher’s. The baseball writer Roger Kahn and I talked recently about his days covering Jackie Robinson for the New York Herald Tribune. Kahn told me that the sports editor of a Cincinnati paper once came up to him, pointed a finger at Robinson in the batter’s box, and said, “The jig is up. Get it?” Nitwits like that used to preach to big chunks of America.
This is a golden age of liberal sports opining. Olbermann ecstatically disrobes Goodell on ESPN as he once did George W. Bush on his old MSNBC Countdown show. Bob Costas stumps for gun control. Here at Grantland, we cover the protests in Ferguson. More on this story, comrade, as it becomes available.
2. Speaking of politics … There’s an old campaign rule that the most effective attack against a candidate is one that reinforces what the public already believes about him. For example, if a sports-mad politician butchers the name of his home ballpark, voters might think he merely had a bad day. But if a pol whose sports fandom is more suspect makes a similar error, it might become a tell that he’s a pretender. Everyone has their own special soft spot. You can see a similar strategy in the press’s shifting attacks on Goodell.
The first line the press tried, after Goodell suspended Rice in July, went like this: Goodell coddles criminals. As Reuters press critic Jack Shafer pointed out Thursday, that rap doesn’t make a ton of sense. For years, the existing line on Goodell was the opposite: He was too authoritarian, suspending Ben Roethlisberger even though he was never charged with a crime.
So the press shifted gears. The second line of attack said this: Goodell is incompetent, out of touch. “There have been moments when Goodell made Gary Bettman look like the next Steve Jobs,” Simmons wrote last week. More believable, right? Simmons cited Goodell’s mishandling of Bountygate and the referees’ strike. But still: For years, Goodell projected an image of hyper-competence. Even if he flubbed the Rice suspension, it was just hard to switch gears and imagine him as a serial bumbler.
Goodell encouraged the third line of attack himself. He claimed to CBS’s Norah O’Donnell that no one at NFL HQ had seen the Rice elevator tape “to my knowledge.” Within 24 hours, the AP cut his legs out from under him. The attack that emerged was the one that took: Goodell is a dissembler.
That seemed to fit even better. A through line can be traced from Goodell’s filibustering on head injuries (a staple of the NFL commissioner’s office) to the way the league treated and discarded its press corps — hanging them out to dry after assuring them that Janay Rice had a part in the altercation — to the handling of the second Rice tape.
It was the possibility of a lie — not the Rice suspension; not the years of suspensions before it — that brought the most calls for Goodell’s head. The Los Angeles Times’s Bill Plaschke: “If a coverup is confirmed, he should lose the public’s faith, the owners’ good will, and ultimately his job.” The Houston Chronicle’s Randy Harvey: “That trust has been broken.” The New York Times’s William Rhoden: “If we find out that Roger Goodell knew about this video, and saw it, you really have to start thinking about impeachment …”
Some journalists have asked why a single lie should crowd out the far more important question of domestic abuse. That’s easy. In the campaign against Goodell, it’s the winning slogan.
3. Goodell is Nixon! That was the historical analogy lobbed out this week by Olbermann (who had Goodell giving the victory sign in front of a helicopter), Simmons, Whitlock, and the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Rosenthal. It’s one that drips with irony, because Richard Nixon is well known to the Goodell family: He destroyed Goodell’s dad’s career.
Charlie Goodell was a pipe-chewing liberal Republican appointed to the Senate after Robert Kennedy was murdered. He staged a series of insurrections against the GOP. The biggest had him walking arm-in-arm with Coretta Scott King and George McGovern during the Vietnam Moratorium. This activated Nixon’s enemy-slaying machine. During Goodell’s ’70 election campaign, Nixon threw his not-so-tacit support to the third-party conservative candidate; vice-president Spiro Agnew called Goodell the “Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party”; Henry Kissinger whispered dirty thoughts into his secret recording system (“I despise Goodell”). Goodell finished third in a three-man race.
Roger Goodell was 11 years old on that Election Day. If I can play pop psychologist, I’d guess that event is his Rosebud. He admired Charlie Goodell’s idealism and still keeps a copy of his out-of-Vietnam speech in his NFL office. But the son had a different playbook than the father. Roger Goodell would never be outflanked by his enemies. He would rarely stray from the company line. He would accumulate power rather than challenge it — he would be the strongman, not the insurgent.
All in all, he was less Goodellian than Nixonian. And if these are indeed his final days, it’s fitting a hundred Woodward and Bernsteins are rapping at his door.