I don’t know if I believe that the NFL hadn’t seen the Ray Rice elevator footage before it was released by TMZ on Monday morning. It’s just impossible. The NFL is the most powerful league on earth, with unlimited funds and its own security team to gather evidence whenever players are investigated. If TMZ could get the video, the NFL could have gotten the video.
Then again, it’s just as impossible to imagine that anyone with the league could have watched that video and decided that two games was the right suspension for Rice. So who knows what really happened? Depending on how you look at things, the NFL is either incompetent and irresponsible, or inhumane and reprehensible.
And that last sentence could double as a description of everything pro football’s become with Roger Goodell in charge.
Monday’s news came on the heels of Goodell promising to get tough on domestic violence. On August 28, he told the world he “didn’t get it right” with the original Rice decision, and he promised mandatory domestic-violence suspensions for NFL players: six games for first-time offenders, and a lifetime ban for repeat offenders (but with the chance to apply for reinstatement after a year).
As Goodell said then, “Much of the criticism stemmed from a fundamental recognition that the NFL is a leader, that we do stand for important values, and that we can project those values in ways that have a positive impact beyond professional football. We embrace this role and the responsibility that comes with it.”
He continued, “These steps are based on a clear, simple principle: Domestic violence and sexual assault are wrong. They are illegal. They have no place in the NFL and are unacceptable in any way, under any circumstances.”
Three days after the new domestic-violence penalties were announced, Ray McDonald was arrested for domestic abuse. It happened at his 30th birthday party, when police showed up to his house at 2:48 a.m. and found his pregnant fiancée with “bruises on her neck and arm,” which led police to take McDonald into custody. McDonald later professed his innocence and said “the truth will come out.” Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said, “If someone physically abuses a woman and/or physically or mentally abuses or hurts a child, then there’s no understanding. There’s no tolerance for that.”
McDonald played Sunday.
When asked about it, Harbaugh said, “The way the facts are and what’s known, he has the liberty to play in the game.”
You could argue that it makes sense to wait for the courts to decide the facts before taking action, and that would be fair. But for a league that can’t even announce new domestic-violence penalties without a player getting arrested for domestic violence within 72 hours, it might be time to start sending stronger messages. This isn’t a court of law. “Not getting arrested for domestic violence” is a pretty low bar to clear for players who want to play every Sunday.
But then, even the “waiting for the facts” argument has holes in it, because Greg Hardy played Sunday, too. The Panthers All-Pro defensive end was found guilty this summer of domestic violence. His ex-girlfriend says Hardy slammed her arm with a toilet seat and put her in a choke hold.
“He looked me in my eyes and he told me he was going to kill me,” the 24-year-old woman said. “I was so scared I wanted to die. When he loosened his grip slightly, I said, ‘Just do it. Kill me.’”
Here’s another description of events, from the complaint accompanying the restraining order that Hardy’s girlfriend filed:
At one point during their struggle, she said in her complaint that Hardy picked her up and threw her into a tub, then dragged her across the floor by her hair. As Hardy screamed threats, Holder said he lifted her over his head and threw her on a couch “covered in assault rifles and/or shotguns.”
Hardy is appealing the guilty verdict, and the case likely won’t be heard until sometime in 2015, after the NFL season. While he was sitting in jail last May, after the initial arrest, his team was holding a domestic-violence rally at the stadium.
This is the league we have now. It’s full of stomach-churning juxtapositions, glaring blind spots in policy, holes in logic, and all kinds of other insults to our intelligence that make it a little harder to keep watching this sport every year.
It’s not Goodell’s responsibility to solve domestic violence in society. It’s not the NFL’s job, either. People who say we should be more outraged at the courts are right. But that’s also an easy way to let Goodell and the league off the hook. The problems in the real world are bad enough, but if we can’t even get things right in this alternate universe full of fake laws and uniform policies and codes of conduct, that just makes everything seem twice as hopeless. Sports are supposed to be an escape, not a reminder of everything that’s unfair and hypocritical everywhere else.
That’s where Goodell fails constantly. When he tries to make the NFL “a leader that can stand for important values,” his words ring hollow, because his actions have always told a different story. Just look at the highlights from the 49ers or Panthers on Sunday.
Or don’t. Just look at all the other domestic-violence incidents that pop up every offseason instead, and the history of NFL apathy in response. Or think back to Jovan Belcher, the Kansas City linebacker who killed the mother of his child and then committed suicide in the Chiefs parking lot. Or Terrell Suggs, another Baltimore Raven, who was accused of punching his fiancée in the neck in 2012, and then dragging her from a moving car with their two children as passengers. He was later forced to surrender an AK-47 and six other guns to authorities. He was never suspended that year and eventually played in a Super Bowl. The same way Ray McDonald played Sunday.
These incidents make you wonder what role football plays in all of these problems. Does the game make players more aggressive off the field? More emotionally volatile? That would make sense, right? What role does head trauma play? It’s horrible to think about football this way, but thinking about football this way has become unavoidable under Goodell.
Whether you care about these issues and want real change, or you don’t care about these issues and just want to go back to talking about football, your biggest problem is Goodell.
Keep in mind, none of the conversations we had Monday would have happened if Ray Rice had been suspended indefinitely all along. There wouldn’t have been universal outrage at the league, we wouldn’t have spent Monday talking about what’s wrong with the NFL, and I wouldn’t have been thinking about Jovan Belcher or Terrell Suggs.
Instead, on the Monday after the first full Sunday of NFL football, how many people were actually discussing football games? Nobody was freaking out over highlights, or bragging about fantasy teams, or even making Tony Romo jokes. The ongoing Rice news was so awful that focusing on real football felt gross.
If owners don’t really care about the NFL setting some grand standard for the rest of society, that’s totally fine. But Monday should scare them. If the NFL ever really loses supremacy in sports and culture, Monday is a good preview of what that looks like. The league will become such a mess that nobody can bring themselves to care about the actual games.
It may not be Goodell’s job to solve domestic violence, but it’s definitely his job to make sure that scenario doesn’t happen. At some point, shouldn’t it matter that he’s failing miserably?
In this case, his initial suspension was so colossally out of touch that it put the Ravens in an awkward position, it made the league look even worse, and it kept this story going for months. It would be one thing if this were just one screwup, but “colossally out of touch” is more like a standing policy for this commissioner.
Referencing a speech he gave at the rookie symposium, Goodell said this: “I talked on personal conduct. I didn’t speak about anyone in particular in that case. But I did talk about what I call protecting the shield. My job is to protect the integrity of the NFL.”
The NFL has never had less integrity than it does this week. It’s a low point for now, but who knows what will happen next to drag things a little closer to the gutter.
The only behavior this league polices effectively involves uniforms, celebrations, or marijuana testing that the rest of the country stopped caring about several years ago. Meanwhile, there’s still no HGH policy in place, head injuries remain a problem with no clear solution, domestic violence and offseason crime is an issue that’s not getting better, and as the league pushes for an 18-game schedule and a draft in late May, more people than ever wonder how much longer we can keep watching.
However you feel about football, there are big questions this league has to ask itself over the next few years, and it’s hard to believe Roger Goodell’s the right man to answer them. After almost a decade running the league, he’s getting worse, not better. He’s consistently two steps behind public opinion and miles away from ever actually solving anything.
Whether you’re talking about Rice or Goodell, Monday just made it harder to ignore things we knew all along.
Oh, and Hardy? On Sunday he had four tackles and a sack, and helped the Panthers defense harass Josh McCown all afternoon to take down the Bucs. There’s still no word on a suspension, but don’t worry. The league office recently sent a memo to the Panthers warning them that Greg Hardy’s face paint is a violation of NFL uniform policy.
The commissioner’s got things under control.