How many misdeeds can the NFL weather? Wealthy team owners seem intent on finding out
In a just world, the NFL being exposed for its racist hiring practices and sexist inner workings would be a major stain.
Advertisers would pull commercials and end partnerships. Large numbers of fans would tune out. Players would help shine the light on how poisonous it all really is.
There would be accountability. There would be a true reckoning.
At the moment, unfortunately, those things all feel like pipe dreams. Cash has always ruled everything around us, but the wealthy in this country have accumulated such a disgusting amount of power that they abuse us and then make us feel like it's our fault.
The NFL is just a microcosm. Take the past several days:
Roger Goodell commits some kind of performative dance of feigned distress as a league statement that Brian Flores' lawsuit is "without merit" becomes an internal memo decrying the lack of non-white head coaches and front-office executives, and then Goodell meets with some Black leaders for a few hours on Monday to nod his head and likely offer empty words about how he wants to see change.
There are some who believe Goodell actually cares about this particular issue, and if that's true, it only underscores how performative Monday's meeting actually was, because he isn't the one who needs to sit down with civil rights leaders. It's the team owners.
As noted recently by attorney Cyrus Mehri, a co-creator of the Rooney Rule, it is Goodell's inaction a few years ago that likely led to team owners believing the rule can be flouted, as we see so often. When Mark Davis hired Jon Gruden to be Raiders head coach in 2018, then held a few transparently box-checking interviews with Black candidates, and Goodell didn't bother to sanction Davis in any way, the signal went out: Just pretend you care and are fulfilling the rule.
That's how you get a situation like last week, on the same day Flores filed his lawsuit, when media dutifully tweeted that the Minnesota Vikings spent nine hours with Patrick Graham, a Black man, for their head coaching opening, and were welcoming Jim Harbaugh the next day with the expectation that Harbaugh would get the job.
In addition to the years he has spent coaching, Graham spent hours preparing for the interview and traveling to Minneapolis for a full day with the Vikings' brass. And no sooner had the car pulled away from the curb to bring him back to the airport, a reporter for the league's in-house media arm tacitly reveals that it was all a sham.
On Tuesday, The New York Times published a thorough, damning story on the atmosphere within NFL offices themselves, the ones we've been told are a beacon for diversity and inclusivity. Numerous women went on the record to offer their experiences working for the league's corporate offices, and all a league spokesman offered in rebuttal to many of the claims was more gaslighting and obfuscation.
Allegations of bias and being passed over for promotions are there. A Black woman who went to human resources with a concern that her supervisor was biased and promptly got an exit package to leave. One woman who expressed concern over the video of Kareem Hunt shoving a woman and then kicking her only to be told it was "not as bad as Ray Rice [who punched his then-fiancee unconscious in an elevator]." One woman who was involved with the Super Bowl halftime show said she was shoved by a male colleague during an argument and afterward the colleague was removed from the show and made to undergo anger management — but he still holds his title and an NFL spokesman says he didn't shove the woman.
In recent months, Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder lets the NFL take over the investigation into the pervasive, abhorrent culture of harassing women in his team offices — with the caveat that the investigation's findings never see the light of day. Snyder never faces questions, his wife goes on the friendliest podcast she can find to whine about how terrible it has all been for her, and the scores of women who were victimized are told by a sitting U.S. congressman that he's sorry they suffered but their suffering isn't important enough to spend his time on.
The fallout from that investigation, such as there was any? Gruden resigned from his head-coach-for-life position with the Raiders after his racist, sexist, anti-gay, xenophobic old emails came to light.
The league's top attorney, Jeff Pash, also had offensive emails leaked, mocking the league's diversity efforts and joking with a former team president about callously cutting a player. Crickets from the league. Pash still has a job.
There was the use of vile race norming to deny retired Black players full concussion settlement money, or any money at all. And a $790 billion settlement with the city of St. Louis after Rams owner Stan Kroenke left it high and dry, breaking the NFL's own relocation rules. The payday was a surprise, but once a judge ruled the city's lawsuit had merit, the league couldn't risk discovery.
This is what the NFL is. All of it.
And yet on Wednesday, Goodell will stand in front of media for his annual Super Bowl news conference and use his late-night-quiet-storm-radio-DJ voice to say absolutely nothing of substance and protect the men and women who pay his salary at all costs. All of their gross misdeeds swept under the rug.
The sad thing is, far too many of the reporters in attendance will mistake his air of gravitas for substance.
On Sunday, the league will run its in-house commercial about racial inequities in things like access and salaries and expect to fool the audience into believing it actually cares when its actions show the opposite.
Millions will be tuned into the Super Bowl, and that means millions for Goodell and the franchise owners. The racism, the misogyny, the gaslighting, the way anything that bubbles to the surface is covered up or never acknowledged ... money means you don't have to be accountable.
As former league employee Alissa Leeds told The New York Times, "Everything's excused in the name of football."