Reliability is not like a set of car keys. When you lose it, you can’t just get it back and move on. That’s the problem NFL commissioner Roger Goodell created for himself. Every investigation echoes previous investigations, and so many of them were wrong, dishonest, or both.
The NFL’s report on the Dolphins should be read with that history in mind. Try it:
Goodell punished the Dolphins for violating Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (who once sued Goodell over a four-game suspension for deflating footballs).
Goodell also chastised the Dolphins for a violation of former Saints coach Sean Payton (whom Goodell had once suspended for a year over a grant scandal, prompting Payton to complain that the investigation was “rigged” against him).
You’d think a division rival was trying to recruit their starting quarterback during the season it would anger the Patriots (who were under-punished for Spygate and then, in what looked like a make-up, over-punished for Deflategate).
Meanwhile, Goodell claimed Miami tried to forfeit games in 2019, a claim made by former coach Brian Flores (who is suing the league for racial hiring practices, a claim Goodell dismissed about 30 seconds later as “without merit “).
Goodell also suspended Dolphins owner Stephen Ross until Oct. 17 and fined him $1.5 million, but not for telling his coach the team would be better off losing (even though Goodell’s own report says that Ross told his coach that the team would be better off losing). Goodell knows that admitting a team that was struggling to lose would be disastrous for the NFL. So Ross was joking, you see. Goodell suspended Ross just for tampering, which is exactly the level of scandal Goodell can take seriously without worrying about long-term damage to the league.
Goodell’s job is not easy. Any punishment handed down to him will be controversial to some extent. But he has a long, clear pattern of prioritizing image and relationships over truth and justice. It colors any intelligent reading of his actions.
In Goodell’s world, Flores’ allegations of racist hiring practices are so serious they must be unfounded. The idea that the Patriots cheated to win Super Bowls is so devastating that he had to destroy the tapes. Owners can be punished, but the punishment cannot be suffocating or too disruptive. When Goodell suspended Commanders owner Daniel Snyder, Snyder remained at Commanders games.
Sometimes Goodell goes to incredible lengths to actually hide the evidence. The Patriots spying scandal was one example. Sexual harassment allegations against Snyder and the Commanders were another. Goodell declined to provide a written statement, claiming he was protecting the survivors, although their attorneys, Lisa Banks and Debra Katz, issued a statement saying, “Let’s be clear: our clients do not want any further ‘protection’ from you. hide this report.”
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Goodell spent most of his tenure dancing around harmful truths. The Ray Rice attack was so many scandals ago that bringing it up makes me feel like an old-timer drooling over Lance Alworth. However, Goodell’s actions during that 2015 scandal remain revealing.
Briefly: Rice punched his then-fiancé, Janay, in an elevator. He met with Goodell, who fined him two games. TMZ posted the video. The Ravens released Rice. Goodell asked ex-FBI director Robert Mueller to investigate … but preemptively narrowed the scope so Mueller could not answer the most damaging question for Goodell: Did Rice tell the Commissioner the truth in their meeting?
In that case, Goodell protected Goodell. In others, it protects the league’s revenue streams or the most powerful people. His narrow focus on limiting the PR blow is hurting his credibility with both the public and the people around the league — and it’s holding him back more than he seems to realize.
The NFL now has two Black coaches – Flores and Hue Jackson – claiming their owner wanted them to lose games. The claims are highly believable. Everyone paying attention understood that the Browns were trying to maximize future draft capital, and when the Dolphins traded star players Minkah Fitzpatrick and Laremy Tunsil for draft picks, those were obvious lose-now, win-later moves. One could argue that the Browns and Dolphins were smart to do what they did. But both Flores and Jackson understood that asking coaches to forfeit games would eventually cost the coach, and it did. They were both fired.
In his report on the Dolphins, Goodell makes the surprising argument that while Ross repeatedly expressed his preference for a high draft pick over wins and just mentioned bonus cash for losing games (jokingly, Goodell says), it’s not a big deal because…
“Mr. Ross’s comments did not affect Coach Flores’ commitment to winning and the Dolphins fought to win every game.”
To summarize: The owner suggests his manager miss games. The coach tries to win anyway. The Commissioner clears the owner of wrongdoing because the trainer defied him. Additionally, the commissioner punishes the owner for less damaging charges and vents his anger, so the commissioner can claim to have put the owner in his place.
Meanwhile, the league continues to fail to hire and promote Black coaches at a fair rate — despite Goodell’s repeated attempts to fix the problem. I believe Goodell is sincere in his desire to improve the hiring rate of black coaches. But it still hasn’t gotten to the root of the problem, as the owners of black coaches perceive it. In this case, Ross showed no appreciation for what he did to Flores and his career.
Ross says he disagrees with Goodell’s decision, but will accept it. It’s the same line Patriots owner Robert Kraft has used more than once. You’re supposed to think they’re bitterly disagreeing and forget that they’re all protecting the same thing. Every NFL scandal seems to have a common theme: It gets as bad as Goodell can tolerate and never worse.
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