Ravens err, but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's apparent complicity is bigger story

September 19, 2014|Peter Schmuck

There was a time not so long ago when the NFL seemed like it was coated in Teflon.

No matter who did wrong or how badly the incident seemed to damage the credibility of the sport, the NFL would crank up the image machine, put it on spin cycle and emerge with its reputation and runaway revenues intact.

Not anymore.

The Ray Rice domestic violence scandal, which spun out of control when the infamous inside-elevator video became public 12 days ago, continues to damage the credibility of everyone it touches and still could be the undoing of embattled commissioner Roger Goodell.

The NFL sought to change the subject on Friday afternoon by trotting Goodell out in front of a national television audience to deliver a public apology for this clumsy handling of the Rice situation and the growing perception that his league is awash in domestic violence and several other forms of societal dysfunction.

By some accounts, Goodell was contrite and accountable. By others, he flunked the leadership test. An hour later, it didn't really matter, because an ESPN exposé changed the subject back to Rice, the lengths to which the Ravens went to support him after he knocked his then-fiancée unconscious in an Atlantic City casino and the apparent complicity of the NFL in initially assuring that he would not be out of the team's backfield for long.

Of course, the basic fact of the case has not changed since Rice punched Janay Palmer and — according to the original police report — "rendered her unconscious" on Feb. 15. There are a number of enlightening vignettes in the ESPN report, however, that suggest the Ravens knew much more about the true nature of the attack than they let on last week and that they lobbied for the initial two-game suspension that sparked widespread public outrage at Goodell.

The Ravens already have admitted to allowing their affinity for Rice to color their perception of the incident and prompt them to defend his character in the immediate aftermath, but they released a statement Friday night disputing some aspects of the article that was featured on the network's "Outside the Lines" news program.

"TheESPN.com "Outside the Lines" article contains numerous errors, inaccuracies, false assumptions and, perhaps, misunderstandings,'' the statement read. "The Ravens will address all of these next week in Baltimore after our trip to Cleveland for Sunday's game against the Browns."

Still, it's common for media-conscious sports teams to close ranks when there is a scandal involving a high-profile employee. It's also common for a team to work behind the scenes to minimize the impact on the image of the organization and the competitiveness of the team.

What makes this different is the appearance that Goodell went along with it, which could be construed as a display of favoritism toward Ravens owners Steve Bisciotti that could impact his support among the other owners.

What makes it more galling is that the NFL has been operating this way for so long that league officials obviously had become too arrogant or lazy to recognize that they had wandered into a public relations minefield.

The league had dealt with its share of domestic incidents — albeit inconsistently — before Rice delivered that vicious blow, but the combination of two damning videos and too many troubling questions about the response of the Ravens and the league has left both entities scrambling to quell the public and media furor.

It would have been nice to know about the latest Rice revelations before Goodell took to the podium in New York and delivered his public apology, but it's unlikely he would have shed much light on them during his Q&A session with the national media.

Goodell held the news conference to dispel the growing perception that he did not want to face the music after the second Rice video became public and the the scandal dragged the misbehavior of several other NFL players — most notably superstar running back Adrian Peterson — onto the national stage. He also finds himself in the uncomfortable position of needing to mollify the sport's major public sponsors, some of whom are re-evaluating their relationship with the league.

His initial apology appeared to be heartfelt and sincere, and he did announce that NFL owners would assemble a permanent conduct committee that would act in much the same manner as the competition committee that regularly updates rules pertaining to game action and player safety.

But he was not always so forthcoming during the Q&A session, dodging questions that might come up in the investigation by former FBI director Robert Mueller and sidestepping some queries about his continuing support from ownership.

Going forward, he pledged that "everything is on the table" when it comes to creating a comprehensive and consistent NFL code of personal conduct. The question — pending the outcome of the Mueller investigation — is whether he'll be around to enforce it.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

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

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