Facing scrum of critics, can Roger Goodell avoid getting sacked?

National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell is struggling to convince critics that the league is really – no, really – serious about curbing domestic violence by players.

Carmine Galasso/The Record of Bergen County/AP
National Football League Commissioner, Roger Goodell, addresses the media in New York Friday about spousal abuse and child abuse cases the NFL is dealing with.

Roger Goodell, a man known as “The Enforcer” for his authoritarian discipline of wayward players, seemed on Friday more like a beleaguered quarterback looking like he’s about to get sacked.

Breaking a nine-day silence as the NFL weathered a crush of domestic violence allegations that had even breweries rethinking their connection to professional football, Mr. Goodell, the NFL’s high-profile commissioner, on Friday acknowledged that he had poorly handled Ravens’ running back Ray Rice’s punchout of his wife earlier this year, saying, “I let myself down … I let everyone else down.”

 As he announced a series of reforms, including a personal conduct committee for players and clarifications for off-field rules for player behavior, Goodell also said he would not heed calls for his dismissal – such as the protest planes that buzzed several stadiums last weekend with banners that read: “#GoodellMustGo.”

To be sure, Goodell’s initiatives may well be necessary, and may work to help players adhere to higher standards off the field. But critics say Goodell’s delivery and demeanor – “Almost like he just wants it done with,” as one analyst said – suggests that his problems are far from over.

The talk about Rice’s punch and other domestic abuse cases that have ensnared players like Vikings superstar Adrian Peterson has overshadowed the first few games of the 2014-2015 NFL season. Lagging TV rating and stock slides for the NFL’s broadcast partners suggests the stakes could hardly be higher for the league, or for Goodell.

“Last week, the stock prices of all four of the networks that showcase the NFL – CBS, Walt Disney (ESPN), Comcast (NBC), and Fox – underperformed the broader market,” writes Mike Ozanian, in Forbes. “Coincidence? I doubt it”

The commissioner’s troubles began when he gave Ray Rice, a star running back for the Baltimore Ravens, a two-game suspension after a video appeared showing Rice hauling his then girlfriend, and now wife, Janay Palmer, who was clearly unconscious, out of a casino elevator.

Then earlier this month, the gossip site TMZ aired a video from inside the elevator, showing Rice knocking Janay unconscious with a left hook.

Goodell said Friday that Rice’s versions of events didn’t jibe with the video. The league also said it attempted to get the video from law enforcement, which the league said denied them access to it because it was part of an active investigation. The fact that TMZ could obtain the video when the NFL's squadron of lawyers couldn't fed a sense that the league was half-heartedly investigating what happened, suggesting in turn that the NFL, and Goodell, haven't made stopping domestic abuse a high priority. 

Making matters worse for Goodell, the AP reported that a law enforcement official had emailed the video to the league months ago, and had a voice mail confirmation to prove it. (Goodell reiterated Friday that he had never seen the video before TMZ aired it.)

With those head-scratching contradictions out in the open, Goodell hired former FBI director Robert Mueller to sort it all out.

To be sure, the fact that Goodell hasn’t resigned suggests he still has at least some support from the league’s 32 owners. But that support, analysts say, may fray with rumblings about the league's handling of the situation from major sponsors like Anheuser Busch and Procter & Gamble, especially as such sponsors supply about $1 billion of annual revenue for the league.

Some sports columnists saw a more serious flaw in Goodell’s performance: A man backtracking his own rulings, which seemed milquetoast compared to how other league commissioners have dealt with embarrassing situations, including the near immediate suspension by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver of Clippers owner Donald Sterling earlier this year for a series of recorded comments where he talked disparagingly about black people.

“What became more clear, crystal clear, the longer [Goodell] talked on Friday afternoon was that he had gotten caught being the weakest commissioner in professional sports, that he is through being called the most powerful man in sports in this country,” writes Mike Lupica, in the New York Daily News.

 Calls for Goodell to step down broadened to include Hall of Famers like Tedy Bruschi, who won three Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots.

Regarding Goodell’s performance on Friday, “We needed someone to go up there and be a leader … and say something substantial,” Bruschi told ESPN, in order to give fans and players “hope that things will be done right … that wasn’t done because I don’t think Roger Goodell is the guy that can do that anymore.”

 While some analysts said Goodell looked “beleaguered” as he lumbered through questions from the press, the actions he announced may yet help dissipate outrage over not just the actions of players, but the league’s apparent willingness to soft-pedal serious allegations in order to keep key players on the grid iron. (The Minnesota Vikings briefly reinstated Adrian Peterson last week after the team got trounced by the Patriots without him, but quickly withdrew that and barred Peterson from the team facility after more outrage.)

Team owners joined Goodell in saying they had made a mistake in reinstating Peterson. Goodell on Friday said the league will now punish “totally unacceptable” behavior such as domestic violence – including child abuse – sexual assault, irresponsible ownership or handling of firearms, and illegal use of alcohol or drugs.

“We go to enormous lengths to make players, coaches, officials, fans and our broadcast partners fully understand playing rules and how they are enforced,” he said. “That must now be our model when it comes to personal conduct.”

The fact that Goodell took responsibility also may help in the long run. For a $10 billion a year league that’s become the nation’s Sunday hearth, the most important indicator of whether Goodell will slip out of the pocket or go down hard is whether fans start to tune out.

“If shares of the broadcasters rebound, it will be a sign of confidence in Goodell,” Mr. Ozanian writes in Forbes. “If they continue to falter, it shows the opposite, and Goodell may be out.”

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