Opinion: NFL attorney must be held accountable if Goodell is sincere about `protecting shield'

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Now we’ll see just how committed NFL commissioner Roger Goodell really is to "protecting the shield.”

Quick to hammer players who run afoul of the law or put themselves in situations that embarrass the good name of the NFL, Goodell is now faced with one of his own doing the very same thing. Jeff Pash, the NFL’s general counsel, might not have done anything illegal, but a report late Thursday by the New York Times about some of his emails certainly has brought shame to the league.

According to The Times, Pash mocked the NFL’s diversity hiring efforts and was sympathetic to the Washington Football Team’s defense of its previous racist nickname. He also appeared to show favoritism to the Washington Football Team and its former president, Bruce Allen.

That chummy relationship is sure to raise additional questions about the NFL’s leniency and lack of transparency following the investigation into the toxic and misogynistic workplace at the Washington Football Team.

NFL's general counsel Jeff Pash (right) accompanied by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at a hearing on Capitol Hill in 2011.
NFL's general counsel Jeff Pash (right) accompanied by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at a hearing on Capitol Hill in 2011.

Like, was it Pash who told investigator Beth Wilkinson to make a series of oral reports rather than issue a written report, which has been done in seemingly every other high-profile NFL investigation? After all, she reported to him.

How much influence did Pash have on the decision to fine Washington owner Daniel Snyder $10 million? What initially appears to be a significant figure is actually the equivalent of pocket change for someone whose net worth Forbes has estimated at $4 billion. The NFL also didn’t strip Washington of any draft picks, a punishment with the potential for far more impact.

And given these were just a handful of the 650,000 emails that Wilkinson and her team turned over to the NFL earlier this year, what else is in there? Might the thought of opposing attorneys combing through Pash’s correspondence be the reason the NFL was willing to settle Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid’s collusion lawsuit?

These are all fair questions to ask. And try as the NFL will to insist there’s nothing to see here, they will be asked.

“Jeff Pash is a respected and high-character NFL executive,” Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications, told The Times. “Any effort to portray these emails as inappropriate is either misleading or patently false.”

Spare me the self-righteous indignation.

It was appalling enough to see the casual racism, misogyny, homophobia and bigotry in Jon Gruden’s emails – which cost him his job, by the way. At the NFL’s behest, if you look carefully at the comment by Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis.

But we’ve always known that NFL owners are the adult equivalent of a frat house. With few exceptions, it’s a bunch of wealthy old white men who view themselves as superior to anyone who doesn’t look like them or run in their circles. Gruden might not have been an owner, but he was one of “them,” a Super Bowl-winning coach with similar attitudes and inflated view of himself.

The league office, however, is supposed to be different. Or, at least, Goodell has tried to spin it as such, claiming to be pained at the lack of diversity in the coaching and GM ranks and preaching tolerance and inclusion. What do those slogans in the end zones say? “End Racism” and “It Takes All of Us”?

Apparently Pash didn’t get that memo.

“When Allen shared an audio file of a team song aimed at attracting Latino fans,” the Times reported, “Pash responded, `I am not sure this song will be as popular after the wall gets built.’”

He also sympathized when Allen griped about the hiring of Jocelyn Moore, who would become the first Black woman to be the NFL’s top spokesperson.

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Even if Goodell doesn’t care that his top lawyer is someone whose attitudes haven’t kept pace with this century, he ought to at least care about the optics of Pash’s apparent favoritism of a particular team.

Remember Deflategate? The outrage at NFL headquarters wasn’t about Tom Brady and the New England Patriots inflating footballs to make them easier to throw. It was about their attempts to game the system.

If fans can’t trust what they’re watching, they eventually won’t.

“The appeal of our game is that we are all playing by the same rules,” Goodell said in a 2015 appearance on ESPN Radio’s “Mike & Mike” show. “When somebody seeks to gain an advantage outside of those rules, that's something that has to be addressed.”

The injury report serves to keep everyone on the up and up, so a team can’t hide the injury – or recovery – of a key player from the upcoming opponent. The NFL takes it seriously enough that it updates it daily from Wednesday on, and teams are fined for skirting it all the time.

Yet after Allen whined to Pash about Washington being fined $15,000 in October 2013 for then-coach Mike Shanahan’s doctoring of the injury report – minor, when you consider the NFL slapped the Detroit Lions with a total of $110,000 in fines for similar shenanigans in 2019 – Pash overruled his own staff and rescinded the penalty.

The NFL might not consider Pash’s emails inappropriate, but it sure should his actions.

Goodell has made his reputation on his relentless defense of the NFL's image. But Pash's emails will test how sincere that actually is.

Commissioner, you're on the clock.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Goodell's efforts to `protect the shield' must apply to NFL execs, too