When National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell began his news conference Friday afternoon, it felt like Senator Richard M. Nixon’s “Checkers” speech of 1952, a chance to stop a spreading scandal and turn public opinion in his favor.
But by the time he finished, Goodell looked like President Nixon in 1974, surrounded by snarling reporters feeding on the entrails of the Watergate scandal that led to his resignation.
What does it say when the Pentagon and Anheuser-Busch – NFL sponsors who deal in weapons and alcohol – tell you your sport is projecting an image that is too violent and out of control and that maybe they might have to re-think their commercial relationship with you?
Goodell tried to come clean on the soft, inconsistent and changing punishments he’s given to Baltimore’s Ray Rice for beating the woman he later married and to Adrian Peterson of Minnesota, charged with a felony for allegedly beating his four-year-old son with a small tree branch.
“I got it wrong on a number of levels,” said Goodell, who looked a little less confident than usual. He said he would bring in experts, form committees and appoint the former head of the FBI to get to the bottom of it.
But, under questioning, Goodell was the verbal equivalent of a broken-field runner, dodging the issue of the videotaped knockout punch by Rice; stiff-arming specific questions about how much disciplinary power he will relinquish; and sprinting ahead of hints that he should resign.
You half expected him to declare “I am not a schnook” and then ask the press why they don’t get back to covering the sport that has become the ubiquitous American theatre upon which our public morality plays are staged.
There have been several other similar cases of NFL domestic violence in the last few weeks, but the Rice and Peterson affairs are the big, symbolic ones involving popular veterans.
And this mess would not have grown to this scale without the video released by TMZ that showed Rice hitting hisfiancée with a left hook in the elevator of a New Jersey casino.
It was the sports equivalent of the tape of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles cops. King probably wasn’t the first black man to be so bullied; Janay Rice is almost certainly not have been the first woman punched by her angry football man.
But knowing what happened intellectually and actually seeing the video many times forces people to respond on a visceral level. (Middle Eastern radicals know this; they videotape the beheading of Western journalists to try to draw nation-states into a war with religious fanatics).
Behind Goodell Friday there hung a red, white and blue “NFL” shield, one of the nation’s most well-known corporate logos. At times, he seemed to need to grab the shield and hold it in front of him for protection.
He said, in that clichéd way, that the NFL is a microcosm of society. But perhaps it is really a macrocosm.
Such is the popularity of the sport that its stars become our avatars for good and evil. Acceptance of gay people into mainstream society? Follow the Michael Sam case. Discuss the treatment of Native Americans? Let’s put it in the context of the Washington Redskins.
And just beneath the surface bubbles permanent, boiling American magma of race and sex. Why are these young black men being judged by old white men? Why weren’t women included in the disciplinary process?
The National Organization of Women finds Goodell’s reaction less than satisfactory but Rush Limbaugh demands the commissioner stiffen his spine lest he “chick-ify” the sport to please women and destroy it as the game loved by manly men like him.
To remove Goodell, most of the 32 owners would have to turn on him and most of them will probably wait for this to blow over. More than fan and media pressure, they would react mostly to loss of sponsorship money from those who dwell in luxury boxes. Don’t hold your breath.
But if the image-conscious league really wants to polish the shield, there’s a solution. Let Goodell finish his investigation and announce the league’s new, enlightened policy in time for the Super Bowl, as promised. And then, surprisingly and gracefully, Goodell resigns before the game.
Who would take his place? Remember Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State under George W. Bush? For eight years of that botched administration, she told anyone and everyone that her lifetime goal is to be Commissioner of the National Football League.
What better way to cleanse the odor of the Goodell era than to appoint an African-American female to the highest office in American sports?
She knows and loves football. She’s really bright. She’s an accomplished double-talker. Her right-wing political connections would please the wealthy plutocrats who own the teams.
Even Limbaugh would belch a few burbles of praise. There’s something here for everybody. Goodbye to Roger the dodger. Our long National Football League nightmare is over.
Joe Lapointe spent 20 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times and worked as a segment producer for Countdown With Keith Olbermann. Recently, he’s taught journalism at New York University, Rutgers and Long Island University-Brooklyn.