The NFL owner is someone I've known for some time. He is earnest, thoughtful and measured. His words on the latest turn in the Ray Rice case, as reported by Rob Maaddi of The Associated Press, are likely what many owners are thinking.
"Roger [Goodell] is not a liar," said the owner, who asked not to be identified. "He's a good man who always wants to protect the NFL. He's respected and liked by every owner I know. I believe Roger and the league. I trust them."
The owner kept stressing that…repeatedly. Over and over and over again. But then, his tone changed slightly, becoming more somber.
"But I have to say that if this report is true, this is very bad for our league, and for Roger. No owner will support him if this is true. Not one."
I'm not sure that's exactly true. Some owners would support Goodell. But the sentiment is accurate. There would be anger at Goodell from a faction of owners. Great anger.
I actually think Goodell is telling the truth. I believe him. I also think Goodell is a good and decent man.
But if he's lying, if he's obfuscating in any way, he will pay. If he's covering up in any way, he will pay. If he knows of a cover-up, he will pay. And he should.
He has built goodwill among ownership. He has made them a ton of cash and brought labor peace to the NFL. But not even some of the most powerful owners in the NFL, like Robert Kraft or John Mara—who are his biggest supporters—can save him from being punished in some manner if this story is accurate.
If this is true, there will be owners who will want a pound of flesh. You can count on that.
I do not think Goodell will be fired. I can't find a team official or anyone else who thinks that, either. But numerous sources believe that if somehow this AP story is accurate, someone underneath Goodell could be fired (translation: sacrificed), and Goodell himself could end up writing a big, fat fine check.
In fact, current and former team executives outlined this potential scenario, pending the veracity of the AP story. An underling—quietly and secretly—is fired while Goodell is fined seven figures. If—and huge if—the AP story is accurate, that seems to be the likely outcome. Not a firing at the top, but a fining.
Yet with this story, with its massive twists and turns, anything is possible. I believe Goodell, but this new information poses several key problems for him.
First: The Associated Press is a credible news agency. I believe the accuracy of the story. There is a part in particular where the AP says the law enforcement official played a voice mail recording of a woman saying they received a copy of the tape and the actions by Rice looked "terrible." That is the type of fact that gives a story weight.
Second: The scenario outlined by the AP actually coincides with what I've been told for weeks based on interviews with team officials. The belief is that the NFL didn't truly want the tape, particularly Goodell's inner circle. They wanted distance and plausible deniability. This latest information backs those thoughts.
The upper hierarchy of the league understands the potential damage such an ugly video can do. That type of violence can not only ruin lives and wreck careers, but it can begin to erode empires, even an empire as formidable as the NFL's. A player knocking his fiancee unconscious can be the beginning of an exodus of fans and ad revenue.
That seems impossible to conceive now, but it's true. The league knows this and wanted the tape as far away from the greatest symbol of the NFL—its commissioner—as possible.
No team executive I spoke to believes Goodell is lying. And if he is lying, he's probably smart enough to get away with it. One terrifically smart former executive outlined an interesting scenario, saying that if Goodell isn't telling the truth and did watch the video, he likely did so with legal counsel present. That way, privilege would apply. It would never come out, and that knowledge would be a ship without a port.
Lastly: Do not think the NFL is stupid. Some of the most intelligent men and women in all of business work in those Park Avenue offices. The league not acquiring the elevator tape while TMZ did isn't incompetence. It's a tactic.
We are still a long way from proving what the AP is reporting, but this is potentially damning. It's damning in a way I haven't yet mentioned, in that it looks hypocritical. Remember, in the infamous Saints Bountygate case, Goodell said, "Ignorance is not an excuse."
No, it's not.
If this is true, Goodell will pay. And he should.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.