Roger Goodell has no place as commissioner of the National Football League. He is an amoral cover-up artist whose concerns—in the wake of the Ray Rice/Janay Rice video scandal—have been revealed as limited to profits and public relations. He is like the collective test-tube baby of the league’s ownership, a man who started working for the NFL over thirty years ago and has grown into adulthood as a crystallized reflection of their priorities.
For too long, and with much media burnishing, Goodell has played the role of “the Hammer,” the tough guy who will suspend and discipline players, all in the name of policing their “personal conduct.” His aphorisms, once the stuff of legend, are now the shovels being used to rightly bury his tenure in office. Oft-repeated phrases such as “Ignorance is never an excuse” and “My only responsibility is to protect the integrity of the Shield” are now apt justifications for him to leave. This tough demeanor now stands exposed as just another act of public relations, assuaging the public that, in a league 70 percent African-American, to have no fear because Commissioner Kipling is in control, civilizing his charges. He has played the “Mr. Drummond role” to the understandable chagrin of the players, and their public glee at his recent squirming is reason enough to show him the door.
Domestic violence has always been the exception to Goodell’s law-and-order reign. Public relations, along with a hyper-toxic masculinist culture, has made this the NFL way for decades, and Goodell has dutifully carried that tradition forward. During his tenure, fifty-six players were arrested on domestic violence charges, and have been suspended for a combined thirteen games. In the first fifty-five cases not caught on videotape, few noticed that this was happening, and Roger Goodell was only too happy to look the other way.
There is a certain justice to the fact that it was people actually witnessing a shocking video of domestic violence with their own eyes that could lead to his downfall. So much of Goodell’s job description involves keeping people from thinking about how the NFL sausages are made. Whether the issue was head injuries or pain killer addiction, his job has been to either cover it up or make people believe that the league is “dealing with the problem.” Now the public has had two sobering weeks to taste the nitrates and hog anuses that comprise how NFL business is handled, and it is appalled. It’s been an up-close and personal view at how Commissioner Accountability pushes domestic violence under the carpet. Goodell, that master of public relations, has become a PR liability and has got to go. (His loudest supporter in the ranks of ownership is the reptilian boss in Washington, Dan Snyder. This is because Goodell backs Snyder’s use of a slur as a team name. The commissioner does this while enacting penalties for players who use slurs on the field. That’s so Roger!) But chanting “Goodell Must Go” is the easy part. A tougher task would involve exerting public pressure to get an anti-Goodell as the next commissioner.
Yes, so many of the game’s moral failings—the assembly-line creation of head injuries, for one —will endure no matter who runs the show. This sport is a dangerous, violent occupation, and any effort to pretend that it isn’t just brings us back into Goodell’s relativist, PR-driven hell. But there is also so much that the league can do. They can set up institutions and avenues so survivors of domestic violence can come forward in confidentiality. They can offer health care for life so players aren’t bankrupted as they hit middle age. It can cease being a sponge of corporate welfare and pay for its own damn stadiums. It can stop offering corporate cover for Dan Snyder’s monetized racism. Few, if any, NFL owners want any of the above, of course. That will require a bionic form of public pressure. It will also require an attention span that sports fans, not to mention the sports media, often lack. Almost certainly, if Goodell goes, Condoleezza Rice will probably be begged to take the gig. That would be a cynical end to the ugly chapter Goodell has written. Any hope for actual substantive change would smolder in ruins, in a mushroom cloud, if you will.
Here is a different ending: hire co-commissioners. Hire former NFL player Don McPherson and the first woman to score a point in an NCAA Division I football game, Katie Hnida. They should be hired not because of their football résumés but because Hnida and McPherson are two forward-thinking, whip-smart critics whose perspective on the sport starts from inside the locker room. Both are veterans of the football world who have devoted their public lives to raising consciousness on gender equity and violence against women in and out of the athletic industrial complex. Both would start their first day in office thinking about how the sport can use its massive cultural platform to do the most good and the least amount of harm. For what it’s worth, I have heard from both Ms. Hnida and Mr. McPherson over Twitter, and both, if asked, would serve.
Tragically, I don’t think this will ever happen. But if these two remarkable people were tapped to lead, it would be the first NFL move in a long time that wouldn’t make us feel like we need to shower with steel wool as penance for the blissful escapism that the league supplies. The sport has more money than it could ever spend. It is, as one TV executive said to me, “the tent pole holding up broadcast television in 2014.” Let Commissioners Hnida and McPherson lead the NFL to a new day, where domestic violence is confronted, not covered up, and wearing a hometown jersey is a source of pride, not shame. We can try and fight for this. But step one is that Goodell must go.