Fay Vincent resigned as Major League Baseball commissioner on September 7, 1992. He was the last major sports commissioner to resign beneath a cloud of controversy, making him our only real modern template for what may or may not happen to Roger Goodell.
Vincent’s case sheds some very bleak, cynical light on Goodell’s future.
Vincent was not ousted because Major League Baseball was racked by a cocaine problem, or because a massive steroid scandal that would soon swallow the sport’s integrity was already simmering. In fact, he tried to stand tough on those issues, issuing a lifetime ban to pitcher Steve Howe, whose serialized suspensions were making a laughingstock of baseball’s drug policies.
Vincent was not ousted because Major League Baseball endured constant labor stoppages in that era. In fact, he minimized the damage of the one work stoppage of his tenure, helping end the 1990 lockout before the start of the season.
Vincent was ousted by a two-thirds majority of baseball owners because he often took hardline stances against those owners. He suspended George Steinbrenner for his role in the Harold Spira-Dave Winfield affair. He outspokenly condemned the owners’ role in the collusion scandal that turned free agency into a joke (and a serious antitrust issue) in the years before he came to power. In the opinions of many influential owners—the so-called Great Lakes Gang—Vincent sided with players on too many issues while arbitrating the 1990 labor dispute.
Worst of all, Vincent presided over Major League Baseball when television ratings and revenues were falling.
In other words, Vincent was not subservient to his bosses, and he hurt (or was blamed for hurting) the bottom line. That’s what gets a sports commissioner fired: messing with the owners’ money and/or privileges.
That’s the bleak, cynical reality facing all calls for the resignation of Roger Goodell.
Goodell is not an elected official. His approval rating might well be at an all-time low, but there are no midterm elections for him to worry about. His credibility is shot, but an NFL commissioner does not need to have “credibility” with the public, Tedy Bruschi, Keith Olbermann or anyone else when he is negotiating television contracts, approving franchise sales or even levying basic substance-abuse suspensions. He just has to be the NFL commissioner, the only guy to talk to if you want to be in the NFL business.
Goodell only needs to have credibility in the eyes of the owners to keep his job. He still has that credibility, because he did not do what Fay Vincent did. Goodell has done exactly what NFL owners wanted him to do, and is still doing it.
The ESPN Outside the Lines report on the Ray Rice scandal alleges that Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti wanted Rice’s assault upon his then-fiancee downplayed from the very beginning. Goodell did just that. The report also finds Bisciotti and Goodell playing golf together at a point when the Rice investigation was supposed to be intensifying. Goodell was doing business exactly the way one of the owners wanted NFL business to be done.
Bisciotti is not an outlier. Adrian Peterson was indicted for child abuse late last week and quickly deactivated for Sunday’s game. By Monday, the Minnesota Vikings were ready to reinstate him. Only a public outcry and a second set of child abuse allegations forced the Vikings and the NFL to perform an about-face on a decision that clearly had owner Zygi Wilf’s blessing. When Goodell slow-walked to justice and waved “due process” like a magic wand to delay all accountability on serious character issues, he was doing business the way the Vikings were still trying to do it, even with an angry mob at the gates.
Ray McDonald remains in uniform for the 49ers. His case is somewhat different than many of the others on the NFL docket right now—there is no conviction, admission of guilt or publicly damning evidence—but the 49ers have not followed the latest trend of quietly shuffling a controversial player to the exemption list. Despite public outcry, owner Jed York prefers to do business the old-fashioned way.
The Panthers shrugged through a guilty Greg Hardy verdict and decided they would wait for an appeal before taking him off the field; only the intense heat of last week’s public criticism forced them to act. Owner Jerry Richardson was on board with Goodell’s way of handling domestic abuse cases until last week, and he is reportedly the leader of a pro-Goodell movement, per Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.
Those are just the owners who, in recent weeks, tacitly accepted a “business as usual” approach to player discipline that featured soft-peddling, clock-killing and perhaps the occasional golf junket.
Other owners have benefited from Goodell’s velvet-glove handling of ownership-level scandals. Wilf was found liable of breaking New Jersey racketeering laws. Goodell did not even ask him to pay back his $200 million stadium loan. Jimmy Haslam’s Pilot Circle J corporation was fined $92 million and accepted responsibility for the criminal conduct of its employees in an elaborate diesel coupon redemption scheme. Neither Haslam nor the Browns even received an NFL reprimand. Jim Irsay’s six-game suspension and $500,000 fine was handled quietly, and while it was not quite a wrist slap, Irsay did not get any books thrown at him, either.
Goodell took care of these owners. It will take more than petitions to stop them from taking care of him.
We then come to the men of great ethical standing who make up the rest of NFL ownership. Jerry Jones has his own sexual assault allegation to deal with; his lawyer called the charges a “shakedown” and a “money grab” in a statement, and his lawyer may be correct, but this is not the language of an individual operating under a principle of increased sensitivity. Dan Snyder has proven throughout the Redskins name controversy that he is not a guy who bows to media outrage. Both Snyder and Jones have had run-ins with Goodell in the past, but both have also issued written or verbal votes of confidence.
Art Rooney and John Mara, old-guard owners with the clout to potentially lead an anti-Goodell charge, have been deputized as heads of an investigative team. The NFL Players Association, a potential wild card in any coup, will soon be granted the seat at the disciplinary table it has long clamored for.
Other owners have a stake in the status quo. Ralph Wilson’s family needs the Bills sale to proceed smoothly. Stan Kroenke may soon want to move the Rams. Mark Davis will also be working on Raiders stadium or relocation matters soon. His father might have picked a fight just for the sake of fighting, but Davis is making soothing noises about suspending players with pay, as he told Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, while the league sorts its problems out.
The Outside the Lines investigation, while revealing, sheds little new light on Goodell’s role in the Rice saga; owners knew the gist of it when they backed the commissioner last week. Goodell’s vague, deflective press conference outraged fans and observers, but it was exactly the kind of press conference multi-millionaires always give and love to hear. Nothing has happened this week to erode owners’ confidence that the commissioner will do what the owners want their commissioner to do.
NFL owners always either need favors or have just received them. In their dollars-and-cents world, a weak commissioner is not a bad thing, but a great thing: Goodell will have to be even more accommodating in the future than he was in the past. And he has been pretty accommodating in the past. Cycle through the NFL owners who might have had an axe to grind against Goodell before the Rice cover-up went public, and Saints owner Mickey Loomis is the only one who comes to mind. And Loomis hosted a Super Bowl (and all the Savior of New Orleans press that came with it) two years ago.
Goodell is not a president who can be impeached. He is not a senator who can be taken down by crusading reporters or an angry constituency. He is a feudal king whose power comes from the gifts he bestows upon his lords. Vincent’s lords turned on him because they were unhappy with his meager generosity and wary of his power. Goodell’s lords have been satisfied with his gifts and will welcome a decrease in central power. No one in the Great Hall is all that worried about the serfs and their pitchforks.
Owners will only sour on Goodell if their treasure chests start drying up. Anheuser-Busch, Fed-Ex and Marriott have already voiced their displeasure with Goodell’s handling of the Rice issue , but public statements are cheap and easy. Beer and hotel companies do not care who the NFL commissioner is. They are fiefdoms of their own, and they want the distance from a scandal that comes from strongly worded press releases and, later, the kind of get-things-right policy the NFL will eventually deliver. (Whether such a policy has teeth is irrelevant to sponsors; it just has to sound good).
Television ratings may dip, but current contracts will run through 2022. We will not still be thinking about Ray Rice eight years from now. And ratings are relative. In the midst of roiling scandals, a 56-14 blowout between two small-market teams enjoyed twice as many viewers as the next-highest rated show on Thursday night, and those ratings were considered low by NFL standards. Goodell or no Goodell, corporations are going to stay in the NFL business. And we will keep watching.
The only reason owners might rally to demand Goodell’s resignation—barring any truly shocking new evidence—is because they consider it a necessary public relations move. There are two problems with that. First, as illustrated many times above, these are not individuals who spend their days scrolling Twitter and worrying about what the public thinks of them. Second, ousting Goodell in the name of spin control would mean ousting him for the worst possible reason: The owners would not be changing horses to do the right thing, but to exert control of the storyline. Now, what do you think the owners would do next? Think: figurehead.
"People have said, 'You're the last commissioner,'" Vincent told The New York Times after he resigned in 1992. "Well, if I'm the last commissioner, that's a sad thing."
It is a sad thing. Vincent was flawed, but he was also courageous and willing to balance the best interests of his sport with the public trust. Commissioners since Vincent have watched the World Series and Stanley Cup get cancelled, have suddenly become (or pretended to become) laissez-faire on labor issues, have spoken loudly on many sports-and-society issues but generally carried a small stick.
Goodell claimed to be different. There were times when he appeared to be different. But he’s what a 21st century sports commissioner has become.
He represents the interests and values of the people who gave him power. And he isn’t going anywhere.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.