Imagine if in 2004 during the darkest days of the Iraq war, George W. Bush had called a press conference and said, “Wow. I have really screwed the pooch on this one and sure as heck can’t fix it. Well, fool me once… won’t get fooled again. I have therefore decided to call upon my predecessor, Bill Clinton, to clean this up. Have a nice day.” This would have meant more than a loss of prestige. Even Bill Kristol would call such a move the beginning of the end of Bush’s time in the White House.
That’s what just occurred in the corridors of power of the National Football League. Commissioner Roger Goodell has “recused himself” from hearing the appeals of four suspended current and former members of the New Orleans Saints charged with leading a “pay to injure” bounty scheme. Instead he’s appointed former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to do it for him. The evidence behind the suspensions has been unraveling for some time and now the authority of the once almighty current commissioner is unraveling with it.
There is no sugarcoating the defeat this represents for Roger Goodell. Over seventeen years, Paul Tagliabue oversaw labor peace and a spirit of cooperation with the NFL Players Association. Of course, most owners therefore couldn’t stand him. Goodell was selected as an anti-Tagliabue, a person the owners wanted to centralize authority, streamline the player-discipline process and, above all else, reclaim revenue from the players’ pockets. This was all justified by selling the necessity of a stern father cracking down on “conduct unbecoming” the NFL. Unlike every other sports league, when Goodell issues a suspension, players cannot appeal to an independent arbitrator but only to the NFL commissioner himself. The prosecutor is also judge and jury. No checks. No balances. Roger Goodell is the law.
The New Orleans Saints “Bountygate” was supposed to be the crowning achievement in Goodell’s efforts to remake the league as a vertically organized, authoritarian enterprise. He was, with great media fanfare, to dispense harsh justice on players who aimed to intentionally injure opposing players. In one swoop, Goodell would show his unquestioned concern for the health and safety of players and emerge as the most powerful leader in the most influential popular sport in the land. There was just one problem: the entire premise of “Bountygate” was built on a foundation of hypocrisy and lies.
This week, the Bountygate case imploded. Goodell sent a memo to all thirty-two teams that his “anonymous whistleblower”, whose existence many doubted, was in fact former Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy. Not so fast. Kennedy released a statement saying that Goodell was spreading “blatant lies about me, thereby adding me to the list of men whose reputations and character have been irreparably damaged by the shoddy, careless, shameful so-called investigation behind this sham proceeding.” Kennedy goes on to categorically deny any possibility that he was a “whistleblower” for a bounty program looking as fictitious as the reasons a certain president took us to war in Iraq.