By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) There is some debate over the originator of the line, “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s fashionable today to attribute it to the Spider-Man comics and films. Some say Voltaire wrote it first. An argument can be made that a version is from Jesus Christ as told in Luke’s Gospel.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell strikes me as a guy not well-versed in any of the three sources, but the maxim applies. Sort of.
It was in March of last year that Goodell graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and was declared as the most powerful figure in sports. The question I have regarding Goodell, though, is —while his power as the head of the biggest sports juggernaut in America is undeniable — to whom is he greatly responsible?
If it wasn’t evident prior, last week certainly solidified that Goodell isn’t a good person. The man who has become synonymous with harsh player discipline left an intelligent public at various points scratching their heads and screaming in protest over Ray Rice’s mere two-game suspension for video of Rice dragging his unconscious then-fiancée/now-wife out of an elevator after having punched her into that unconsciousness. Such leniency is on par with Rice’s coach, John Harbaugh, offering words of support for him, calling this “not a big deal” and “good for kids to understand it works that way.”
If you have a central nervous system, you find Harbaugh’s words completely toxic to not only human decency but child-rearing as well. Goodell doesn’t, though, because his responsibility apparently doesn’t fall over kids who pay attention to his league. Just get a cute kid to lisp through a pro-exercise ad with Cam Newton, and the commish’s work here is done.
The Rice incident is obviously suggestive that Goodell doesn’t feel responsible for any well-being of female football fans, but there is evidence proving that further. Slate’s Justin Peters said in 2012 that the NFL had a domestic violence problem and exemplified it with a different Harbaugh.
“The NFL does have a problem in the inconsistency with which it treats offenders and minimizes their alleged crimes. NFL executives and coaches talk tough on domestic violence but don’t really follow through. On Monday, I mentioned that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh told his players that he will forgive them for anything except striking a woman. Well, in 2008, Ahmad Brooks literally punched a woman in the face, allegedly giving her a black eye and causing her to black out. Brooks is now starting for the 49ers.”
A few months prior to that piece, Goodell had shared his take.
“We are going to do some things to combat this problem because some of the numbers on DUIs and domestic violence are going up and that disturbs me,” Goodell said. “When there’s a pattern of mistakes, something has got to change.”
In 2008, Goodell suspended then-Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall for three games and reduced the penalty to one game upon appeal for alleged domestic violence. In 2014, Goodell has split the difference, so I guess things have changed. Throw in the continued profiting off of breast cancer awareness, and it’s clear that Goodell’s message is, “Your lady problems are your responsibility.”
He has dragged his feet on a racist team name change and has said nothing regarding one of the league’s more respected names being a bigot. These are the buzzing of flies to a league so powerful, so better to be mum and let the average fan’s ADD shift attention elsewhere eventually.
Goodell’s responsibility lies not over the well-being of his players. This is a man who has fostered and tacitly endorsed a culture wherein a player feels sorry not for violence against a woman but for that violence against a woman being a distraction to his team. This is a man who is pushing for an 18-game schedule — two more weeks of car crashes absorbed by players’ bodies.
This is a man who has gone out of his way to disguise, deny and deflect evidence and conversation regarding brain injuries in his league. Brain injuries that have led to irrational, compulsive and unpredictable behavior in previously model citizens like Dave Duerson, who became violent toward women late in his life. Brain injuries that perhaps contribute to a man with an “amazing story” and no prior criminal record turning a couple’s argument in an elevator into a lopsided game of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots.
No, Roger Goodell’s responsibility isn’t over the best interests of fans or employees, really. It’s over that of the owners, which is to say Goodell is responsible to the dollar.
He said as much in his recent letter to Rice when he wrote, “The league is an entity that depends on integrity and in the confidence of the public, and we simply cannot tolerate conduct that endangers others or reflects negatively on our game. This is particularly true with respect to domestic violence and other forms of violence against women.”
Goodell didn’t express to Rice, “Hey, hitting women is wrong.” Instead, the message is Rovellian — “Messing up the brand is wrong.” This was after he allowed Rice to sit in on a meeting about brands with Goodell, multiple Ravens brass, and Rice’s victim wife — something you’re never supposed to do with a victim of alleged abuse, as Keith Olbermann described very well Monday night.
But do we ask our commissioners to be good people? We’ve rallied around NBA commissioner Adam Silver for kicking scumbag Donald Sterling to the curb, but we tolerated if not quietly condoned David Stern long being a huge prick for the sake of growing the league, especially post-Jordan. Bud Selig still isn’t vilified for being the great and powerful Oz behind the steroid era in baseball because we dig the damn longball more than we wring our hands over cheating.
Whether we know it or not, we accept our sports league heads as Machiavellian. Good guys are nice stories, but we don’t need to love these suits so long as we fear them not giving us the sports. We will keep watching and giving the bad guys standing ovations, and they know it, even after we point out that amazingly the great power held by the most powerful person in sports isn’t used most responsibly toward human beings.
You can follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe.