For Roger Goodell and the NFL, Rice case becomes a PR fiasco

September 09, 2014|Peter Schmuck

It may be difficult to believe NFL commissioner Roger Goodell did not see the damning Ray Rice elevator video until Monday, but that doesn't make liars of Goodell or league officials who say they were denied access.

What we have here is a clear case of plausible deniability.

Soon after the video hit the Internet and the tsunami of national anger began to wash over the sport, the league said it had requested all evidence pertaining to Rice's domestic assault arrest from the authorities in Atlantic City — including the elevator footage — but was not given a copy.

Goodell, in a CBS News interview Tuesday, insisted that no NFL officials saw the video before Monday and that "we certainly didn't know what was on that tape."

No surprise there. The NFL public relations machine continues to perform whatever damage control it can muster while it remains knee-deep in a quagmire of tarnished credibility. Goodell would have been better served to borrow a page from the letter Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti sent out to the team's seat license holders and sponsors on Tuesday.

Bisciotti, at least, produced a timeline for the Ravens' investigation of the matter and conceded the team did not do all it should have to ascertain the true nature of the attack. He didn't just say the Ravens got it wrong. He delivered what amounted to a public apology for his front office's failure to uncover the second video sooner, even as Goodell was defending the league's decision to accept no for an answer from authorities in Atlantic City.

The request was predictably rebuffed since the video was part of an open investigation and police and prosecutors had reason to worry that handing it over could damage their criminal case. But the NFL had to know the video would come out eventually — they all do — and either didn't try very hard to get it by some other means or its security division doesn't have the clout everyone assumes it has.

If you recall, Major League Baseball was so determined to crack the Biogenesis PED scandal that league officials bought evidence. TMZ Sports says the NFL didn't even ask the now-defunct Revel Hotel and Casino for the security video that shows Rice delivering the vicious blow to then-fiancee Janay Palmer.

TMZ cites hotel sources claiming that if the NFL had asked for a copy, the hotel would have "gladly" given it up. Bisciotti said in his letter to Ravens stakeholders that the team did ask the hotel for the video and the request was declined. Goodell said in the CBS interview that the NFL asked for the tape, but wasn't clear whether the effort went beyond a front-channel attempt to obtain it from law enforcement officials.

To be sure, it's an iffy business putting too much stock in reports from a celebrity scandal site, but it's tough to ignore anything from TMZ about the incident since it found a way to obtain the damning video that has driven the story.

Meanwhile, the NFL has stumbled over every aspect of it, from the five months it took to announce the initial disciplinary action to the light penalty that sparked nationwide outrage to the admission by Goodell that he "didn't get it right" and, well, everything that went on outside of public view that conspired to turn this into one of the greatest public relations disasters in the history of professional sports.

Now, all we're left with in the aftermath of Monday's revelation and the league's reaction are troubling questions about the priorities of the NFL and calls from media headhunters — most notably ESPN's Keith Olbermann — for Goodell to resign.

Goodell certainly could have been more forthcoming, and his explanation Tuesday should have gone well beyond another bland mea culpa like the one he delivered when he announced the league's new domestic violence policy in August. He didn't just not "get it right," he misjudged the situation at every turn, which is the best possible argument to support his contention that he did not see the second elevator video until Monday.

Think about it. If Goodell saw that video back when a couple of major media outlets were intimating that the NFL had access to it, is it reasonable to think that he would have levied only a two-game suspension on Rice for such an repugnant attack and gambled his reputation on the very unlikely possibility that the video would never see the light of day?

Probably not, but even if he didn't actually see how hard Rice hit his future wife in the face, there are still indications that Goodell, the league and the Ravens participated — whether with full knowledge of the exact nature of the attack or not — in an attempt to whitewash the situation and protect the image of the team and the league.

The Ravens look bad because of the awkward first Rice news conference, the repeated attempts to refocus on his nice-guy image and because they deferred to the league instead of completing their own investigation and imposing their own disciplinary action. Bisciotti said as much in his open letter.

Of course, all this obscures an important point. There was nothing in the video that wasn't already known. The police report said Rice struck Palmer and rendered her unconscious. The video simply put the human faces on the incident and made it impossible for the league and the Ravens to turn the situation — and Rice — any way but loose.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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