Roger Goodell’s job is to advance the interests of the NFL. He's paid millions to maximize revenue, protect the interests of the league and ensure future growth. He is, per the NFL constitution and bylaws, supposed to be "a person of unquestioned integrity."
If people aren't questioning Goodell's integrity after his light punishment of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, they're questioning his priorities.
Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon and Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Justin Blackmon are in the news for their substance-abuse issues and associated suspensions; each might miss the entire 2014 season. Impaired driving is a serious crime, but so is knocking your partner unconscious, then dragging her seemingly lifeless body out of an elevator while security cameras roll—as Rice allegedly did.
The footage was shocking and stomach-turning, and all over the Internet in no time. Rice, his wife, Janay, and the Ravens tried to save face with a joint press conference, but that about as painful to watch. Janay apologized for her "role" in the "incident that night," but Ray didn't apologize to her.
David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun said "without reservation," it was "one of the worst media PR disasters I have ever seen."
With the powers granted to him by the NFL's personal conduct policy, Goodell could have used Rice's punishment to send a strong message about how seriously the NFL takes domestic violence. As Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Mike Freeman wrote, the two-game suspension did send a message: The NFL doesn't take domestic violence seriously at all.
Goodell beefed up the personal conduct policy in 2007 because NFL players seemed out of control. There were too many arrests, too much drug use, too many players making headlines for the wrong reasons. Goodell didn’t just need to keep players out of handcuffs; he needed to make sure players, coaches and fans alike all knew these incidents wouldn't be tolerated and habitual offenders wouldn’t have a place in the NFL.
Suspensions and heavy fines for repeat offenders like Adam "Pacman" Jones and Tank Johnson set the new precedent. Within a year or two, it seemed as though Goodell's new policy was successful. As compiled by Bleacher Report AFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen, total arrests declined sharply from 2008 through 2009.
That arrests were more frequent during the seven years after the policy was enacted than in the prior seven-year period is beside the point. It seemed as though Goodell's policy was successful. The public saw Goodell as a reformer and disciplinarian, building his legacy with each swing of his hammer.
On Rice's case, he whiffed.
One of the reasons Rice's punishment seems so out of step with Gordon's and Blackmon's is because the NFL substance-abuse program is almost entirely out of Goodell's hands.
When the players agreed to submit to drug testing (and discipline based on that testing), they collectively bargained for consistent policies, an appeals process and total confidentiality. That’s why we don’t hear about a player’s status in the system until they actually serve a suspension. If a player who fails one drug test stays clean, the public shouldn't ever find out.
The rules, violations and punishments are clearly spelled out in the NFL's substance-abuse policy. The only way Goodell can impact them is shortening or overturning suspensions on appeal; he'll hear Gordon's appeal on Aug. 1. Still, Rice's punishment for allegedly knocking out his wife in public is far shorter than Gordon's for having smoked marijuana in private—and that's a problem.
Goodell invited this backlash. By appointing himself judge, jury, executioner and appeals court, he alone must balance the severity of the violation against the player’s track record and reputation, as well as the precedents he’s set for himself. He’s punishing players according to his own sliding scale; it was only a matter of time before he miscalculated.
Ultimately, the personal conduct policy is about PR. Just look at Goodell's open letter to Rice; his main concern is about the league having the "confidence of the public."
That's why Goodell tends not to fit the punishment to the crime, but to the size of fan outrage about the crime. Obviously, he thought fans weren’t that upset about watching one of the league’s stars drag his now-wife’s unconscious body out of a casino elevator.
Domestic abuse, as far as Goodell and the NFL are concerned, isn’t as damaging to the NFL’s reputation as drug abuse, owning illegal guns or even playing the game a little too roughly.
What can get Goodell to take domestic violence seriously? The backlash that hit Twitter, Facebook and media across the country is a great first step:
Players and fans speaking out and insisting the NFL hold abusers in its employ accountable is key, as Freeman recently wrote. It's not like any changes need to be made to the policy: The very first bullet in the list of behaviors that could draw discipline includes "domestic violence and other forms of partner abuse."
The only thing stopping Goodell from slapping abusers with bigger fines and longer suspensions is his own personal judgement.
Of course, just like in regular society—and, per Hansen, in the NFL’s own arrest trends—stricter punishment isn’t an effective deterrent. Just as the NFL and NFL Players Association have invested in education and prevention training for concussions, impaired driving and rookie acclimation, the league needs to be proactive, helping players understand risk factors and avoid abusive behavior.
But the league will never make that investment, and Goodell won’t levy stricter punishments, unless they know the football-watching world won’t overlook these crimes any longer.
Just like the public outcry that caused Goodell to institute the personal conduct policy in the first place, the only way to get Goodell and the NFL to take domestic violence seriously is for the public to demand it.