When Roger Goodell became commissioner of the NFL in 2006, he vowed to clean up the game via the players’ personal conduct policy and in the name of on-field safety.
He started tossing guys right and left. Performance-enhancing drugs? Suspended. Drunken driving? Suspended. Dog-fighting ring? See ya. Often unintentional helmet-to-helmet hits? Suspended, fined, etc.
He was merciless. He was nicknamed “The Enforcer” and seemed to relish the title. He was the heavy hand of the NFL’s new law. Thou shalt not… fill in the blank.
In 2010, he suspended Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger six games (knocked down to four upon appeal) for a second alleged sexual misconduct despite no charges ever being filed in either case. I’m surely not suggesting there was nothing to it; I’m saying no charges were filed.
And a year later, Goodell handed down the broadest and perhaps most serious sanctions in NFL history for the New Orleans Saints’ bounty case where players earned bonuses for injuring opposing players.
When even he realized that it would be awkward for the same guy who levied suspensions and fines to hear the appeals, he turned to his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, to do the honors. Although it took too long to save them from missing the 2012 season, Tagliabue eventually vacated all the players’ suspensions, laid the bulk of the blame on coaches and front-office personnel, and delivered a rather sharp rebuke to his successor’s handling of the case.
What have you heard from The Enforcer since then? Not much. Roger Goodell has gone soft and toothless.
Since Tagliabue’s decision on the appeals was announced in December, 2012, there has been one significant suspension — more than one game — handed down for a personal conduct issue. And it can be debated whether Richie Incognito’s separation from the Miami Dolphins for “bullying” a teammate was an action of the league or the team.
Goodell has been invisible during Browns owner Jimmy Haslam’s business trials and tribulations, all $90 million worth. He’s had nothing to say yet about Colts owner Jim Irsay’s issues behind the wheel and with alcohol and excessive prescription drugs. Aldon Smith, the 49ers’ linebacker, has gun and DUI arrests pending and word on the street is Goodell might cut him a break since Smith sought therapy.
But it can’t possibly be a bigger break than he gave Baltimore running back Ray Rice last week. There are surveillance tapes and videos floating through cyberspace for your perusal of Rice slugging and knocking unconscious his fianceé, then dragging her limp body out of a casino elevator. Domestic violence is always ugly and sometimes complicated by closed doors. These doors were wide open. This was complicated because Rice’s fianceé is now Mrs. Rice. Go figure.
Anyway, this was one on which Goodell could flex his muscles. Instead, he gave Rice a two-game suspension and a pocket-money fine. That’s unacceptable. It is an affront to women who make up 30-plus percent of the NFL’s fan base. Being soft on domestic abuse is bad to begin with and, in this case, bad business too.
Wearing pink cleats and pink wristbands to support the fight against breast cancer and selling pink jerseys for inflated prices at the team store is just profitable lip service to women’s causes when you miss the chance, as Goodell did, to make a statement.
One disease may someday — we can be hopeful — be cured by doctors and researchers and billions of dollars. The other will be curbed only if enough people send the message that it’s just flat wrong.
Ray Rice took a swing at one woman. Goodell’s punishment connected with millions of them.
In a matter of basic human respect, Goodell’s weak touch leaves the NFL as anything but respectable.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.