The hell of Roger Goodell: Tarnishing the shield and mudslinging with TMZ

Dan WetzelColumnist
Yahoo Sports

Roger Goodell always looked the part: tall and handsome, with the perfect blond locks and the expensive tailored suits. This guy, no doubt, casts a presence. He was trained for power, the son of a U.S. senator, raised in Westchester County affluence, joining the NFL offices right out of college with upward mobility as the end game.

He rose through the ranks, assuming the commissioner's job in September 2006 at just 47 years old, and with the title came everything: money, influence, fame, private jets, luxury boxes, an Augusta National membership, open doors everywhere he went.

This was the dream job for Goodell and he was the dream candidate for the NFL, a guy who looked so likeable on television yet would win brass knuckle, long-term labor battles and weekly discipline disputes with the players, all without getting a hair out of place.

Only now it's all come undone; now it's all falling apart for Roger Goodell.

Ray Rice, the former Baltimore Ravens running back, beat his then-fiancée last offseason in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino, and Goodell's vaunted security team and his own much-hyped hammer of discipline did little to nothing about it.

The league suspended Ray Rice indefinitely Monday. (AP)
The league suspended Ray Rice indefinitely Monday. (AP)

First it laid down a meager two-game suspension. Then there was a clumsy explanation. Later Goodell admitted to owners he got it wrong. Finally TMZ released a video that shocked and horrified everyone, leaving Goodell under volleys of criticism and suspicion.

To the public he was either complicit in a cover up or just a heartless and clueless empty suit, one who didn't care about an unconscious woman after one of his players laid her out cold.

This is the scandal that Goodell never saw coming. Not for a second.

His reputation is that of a calculating and self-preserving executive but now he's been rocked by something he clearly never considered the importance of: left to find himself in a one-sided, mudslinging fight with TMZ, which everyone in Hollywood will tell you is a losing proposition.

And no matter the fancy schools, designer ties or the elite public relations consultants, if this comes down to who do you believe here, Harvey Levin is going to beat Roger Goodell almost every single time.

Goodell is unlikely to be fired by NFL owners. There is certainly no indication of that brewing, at least. Things will never be the same, though. He'll never be the same. And that's before the days ahead play out, when he must come clean with what he did and didn't do, what he did and didn't know.

TMZ is more than willing to muddy the waters here on Goodell, suggesting on Monday night that it knows two NFL employees saw the Rice footage and then saying on Tuesday morning that no one from the league asked the casino for the video.

That's what Goodell and the NFL are fighting now, trying to defend against both sides. They set themselves up here, leaving many to believe something nefarious, when the more likely explanations involve indifference and incompetence.

The commissioner is getting ripped non-stop, from the front pages of the New York tabloids to a mocking photoshopped image on TMZ of him wearing a blindfold. No one feels bad for him.

This has turned into a Nixonian scandal – what did the boss know and when did he know it?

Here's one take: Goodell would have to be one of the most callous and clueless humans in the country if he actually saw that video of Rice's left hook and still ruled as casually as he did. He has his critics, but to think he was that kind of person is a major stretch.

If nothing else he is a survivalist, a slave to his job that first and foremost entails protecting the shield. Even if he, for some reason, was unmoved by Rice's depravity, he certainly is wise enough to know this was a disaster waiting to strike and would've gone after the player full bore.

No one was going to blame the NFL for Ray Rice. They don't blame it for Aaron Hernandez. There's just no way Goodell would ever have knowingly made himself touchable here, he's too smooth and too smart for that.

His sin here, and it's no less troubling, is that neither he nor his staff took the case seriously and thus never conducted a thorough investigation. It was a dreadful mistake and they are paying for it. They were clumsy in their execution, dumb to the particulars of domestic violence and naïve about what they were assuming wasn't the truth.

They went with the flow of the case, following the lead of the victim, Janay Palmer, who went on to marry Rice anyway and downplay the incident. Experts will tell you the victim's word is never absolute, especially when the NFL reportedly interviewed Palmer and Rice together, like they expected the unvarnished truth from the victim when the bully is sitting right by her side.

They also followed the lead of the Atlantic County prosecutor, who put the case into a pretrial diversion program. It made the incident appear less severe than it was. This was a casino town prosecutor though, someone probably looking at a crime by a tourist on a tourist and just hoping to get it out of the resource-crunched system because it does nothing to improve the quality of life of the actual residents.

The NFL fell for it all though. Or it just didn't care to consider what it was missing. And thus the league didn't pursue the tape the way it should have.

Only then, in an effort to trump up the illusion of its disciplinary might, the NFL either leaked to multiple media outlets that it saw all the videos of the incident or didn't bother correcting false reports because it made it look good.

The NFL rode blind right off this cliff.

At best, this is a self-immolation based on arrogance and ignorance. At worst, it's whatever TMZ is calling it now.

Goodell is out of credibility today and that may be the most jarring thing to him. A life of creating the perfect image, of building a base power from his ability to reassure that he can be believed, that he can be fair, that he can get the job done, is crumbling because of Rice and TMZ.

He has to know so much of the public believes he's just the enabler of a wife beater. Anything said suddenly seems plausible.

His only recourse now is to lay it all out for the fans, point by painful point about what the NFL did, when it did it and why. It must come with admissions of massive mistakes along the way. He can only hope they believe him.

It will be ugly. It already is though.

Either way, Goodell may keep his job but he's lost his aura, half the world raining down on him now, more than willing to believe the worst about a guy who previously was able to sell himself as only the best.

Welcome to the first day of the rest of his life.

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