Roger Goodell’s role – NFL Commissioner, sheriff, counselor or all three?

Zennie Abraham/Flickr.

WASHINGTON, September 20, 2014 – After the Ray Rice video exploded across the internet, Roger Goodell put his head down and dropped out of view. Last Friday, he finally emerged in his first press conference since the video broke.

His performance was long on mea culpa, but was unlikely to satisfy the critics who want him fired, preferably from a cannon. Earlier, women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred asked of the NFL, “But what, if anything, have they done to be supportive of victims?” Echoing that theme, USA Today’s Nancy Armour panned Goodell’s press conference performance. “Goodell did little Friday afternoon to assure to anyone that the NFL is any closer to getting a handle on preventing domestic violence.”

Reporters, U.S. senators, and the president of the National Organization for Women have all been critical of Goodell and his handling not just of the Ray Rice episode, but of issues of domestic violence in general. They have treated Goodell’s failure to visit the wrath of God on Rice and other abusers as a breach of the public trust. They want him gone.

That begs a question that has hung in the background since TMZ released the Rice video: What is the job of the NFL commissioner? When he heard that Rice had abused his girlfriend, why was it his responsibility to investigate further, uncover the truth, and then punish the guilty?

Goodell is not a law enforcement officer, nor is he an elected official. He is not a police officer, a DA or a judge. He doesn’t run a government agency, he isn’t responsible to the American people, or even to the spouses of players in the NFL. He is responsible solely to the owners of NFL teams.

His job is to be the face of the NFL. He works for an organization composed of for-profit private businesses – the different teams. The owners want him to make sure that they stay profitable, and to promote the public face of football.

If by failing to act on the Rice video Goodell brought the NFL into disrepute or damaged its profitability, the owners will want to replace him. But until now, it was never part of his job to be supportive of victims or direct resources to preventing domestic violence. It was not his job to punish players for private behavior, except so far as it brought bad publicity to the League.

The NFL is in the business of football. If the fans want it to be in the business of policing the private lives of its players, then that is what it will do, but until now, the fans really haven’t cared. It’s hard to see why they should have; they probably don’t ask whether their accountants, bankers, or car mechanics abuse their spouses, either. That aside, players in the NFL are statistically half as likely to commit spousal abuse as are 25-30 year old men in general, making it unreasonable for fans to pay much attention to the issue.

If the fans haven’t wanted the NFL to police the lives of its players, then we should be neither surprised nor dismayed that they haven’t done it. If the fans want them to do it now, then the NFL will obligingly be not only the employer of football talent, but its nanny.

That begs another question: Why expect this of the NFL, but not of other employers? Should news outlets be on the lookout for domestic violence among journalists, then suspend or fire them for it? Should supermarkets fire managers accused of spousal abuse, universities fire professors, GM fire accused assembly line workers?

NOW might answer yes; that grim organization has a an unforgiving and punitive streak to it. But America has, over the last generation, developed that same punitive streak. The prevailing belief now is that sex offenders shouldn’t just be punished until the end of their court-imposed terms, but forever. We have embraced three-strike laws to put felons away for the rest of their lives, even when, as has happened, the felonies have been relatively mild and imposed no threat to public safety.

We already expect the NFL to act in the role of the police to detect, report and punish drug crimes. It isn’t as if NFL players perform surgery or take care of children, jobs that don’t require tests for recreational drugs. They’re entertainers, yet Hollywood has never had a policy of firing actors who use drugs.

University professors would be outraged if they were forced to urinate at random into cups under the watchful eyes of college deans. Reporters would revolt if put under that requirement by publishers. Football players do it as a matter of course.

Goodell is being forced to engage in a Stalinist ritual of public self-criticism. He is cooperating because the NFL’s bottom line is at stake, not because the criticism is fair or rational.


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James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.