For a man pulling down $44 million a year to be the public face of a $10 billion industry, Goodell's lack of conviction, emotion, humor, humanity and even basic public-speaking competence was shocking. A man whose calling card is supposed to be a firm, guiding hand looked nervous and shaky throughout the press conference.
His opening statement was read almost entirely from notes. He delivered a host of unoriginal platitudes that didn't sound like he wrote them, let alone believed them. He briefly touched on several major issues facing the NFL, from domestic violence to the point-after-touchdown try (?), but shared little new information and zero insight.
The most worthwhile, interesting thing he said in his opening remarks: To demonstrate their ongoing commitment to improving player safety, the league has plans to hire a chief medical officer. Goodell "hopes" to have that person in place very soon.
That's nice—but again, this is a league of 32 billion-dollar businesses. If they wanted to hire a chief medical officer, they'd have done it.
This is the problem with Goodell: He's forever apologizing for things the league has done wrong and forever promising nebulous change. As Jemele Hill said on ESPN's post-conference broadcast, Goodell is stuck in reaction mode. He's constantly reacting, never proactive, always caught off-guard. Throughout it all, he's painfully earnest and deathly serious.
Goodell's white-knuckle grip on The Shield is relentless. He's wrapped himself so tightly around the NFL's image he can't even loosen up enough to smile.
The closest he came to letting his facade of authority crack was taking a shot at CNN reporter Rachel Nichols. Her fair question about the NFL's habit of launching purportedly independent investigations with investigators hired by the NFL was met with a sour grouse about Nichols not offering to pay them herself.
That's when Goodell unintentionally revealed another untoward side of himself.
He said the integrity of the investigators the NFL hires is "impeccable," per David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune, one of what must have been several dozen times he used the word integrity. I do not think it means what he thinks it means.
An apparent conflict of interest can't be hand-waved away by asserting the party in question has integrity. Integrity is about actions, not words. One can earn a reputation for acting with integrity, but that doesn't guarantee anything they'll do in the future.
Even the most honorable, esteemed judges recuse themselves from cases where they have a legal conflict of interest. An investigator with NFL ties being hired by the NFL to investigate potential wrongdoing by NFL officials has no integrity, at least not in the context of the investigation.
But for Goodell, perception is reality, and winning the public relations battle means more to him than solving league problems. His job isn't to be in charge and have everything under control. His job is to look like he's in charge and to assert that everything is under control. As Ray Ratto of CSNBayArea.com wrote, he's the NFL's "human shield."
This, then, is the puzzler: If Goodell's primary responsibilities are to take public heat and put out PR fires, how can he be so bad at it?
Goodell's mishandling of the Ray Rice case—and his bitterness over the media's treatment of him at the time—clouded the entire proceedings. He called 2014 "a year of humility and learning," per CNN, yet he showed little real humility during an onslaught of questions about his performance, pay and continued employment.
Just look at some of the questions he was asked, via Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith:
Barry Wilner, Associated Press: What do you plan to do, specifically, to restore face in the league and in the quote-unquote, Shield?
Darren McKee KKFN, Denver: A lot of people who had a job like yours would probably resign. Can you imagine any circumstances that would lead you to resign?
Ken Belson, New York Times: Do you believe you deserve a pay cut for your performance?
Very few people would volunteer for a pay cut, or to be fired. These questions, though, reflect the profound loss of faith and confidence NFL observers have in Goodell's leadership.
It's little wonder. His handling of the Deflategate nonsense has been terrible. It's a microcosm of all the ways Goodell has failed, and keeps failing, the league and its fans.
Rather than get out in front of the story, announce the investigation himself and explain the possible stakes, he remained utterly silent while media leaks and speculation fanned the flames. Throughout the worst week on the NFL calendar for a negative story to break, rumor begat furor, and furor begat outcry, and outcry begat insane conspiracy theories and surreal Patriots press conferences.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft, long thought to be Goodell's biggest supporter amongst the owners, held a bristling press conference Monday calling out Goodell and all but demanding an apology. Goodell still didn't respond until his Friday state of the league address—and his response, predictably, was inane double-talk about investigations and integrity.
Bleacher Report's Jason Cole asked Goodell if slight deflation of footballs could be seen as a no-big-deal fudging of the rules, like a spitball in baseball, with little (or no) impact on the game. Goodell bristled.
"We have rules," he said. "We are a league of rules. Whether a competitive advantage is gained or not is secondary in my mind to whether a rule is violated."
So, no. In Goodell's mind, nothing is ever "not a big deal." No molehill is too small to make a mountain out of.
The NFL willfully disregarded, even actively covered up, enormous systemic problems like brain trauma and domestic violence for decades…but the regulation of football air pressure is very serious business which must be handled like a Supreme Court case. Got it.
In fact, Goodell is like the world's worst Supreme Court justice. He's been groomed for this job his entire life and appointed by unaccountable authorities. He's going to keep standing at podiums like this one, making regrettable decisions and being generally embarrassing for as long as he wants to keep making the easiest $44 million in sports.
In the meantime, he will keep being deadly serious about issues that don't really matter, turning a blind eye to issues that do, apologizing for avoidable mistakes and promising it will get better.
The question isn't how long he'll keep his job. It's how long will we keep caring?