How Roger Goodell’s Blind Side Shattered the NFL’s Reputation

Dec. 5, 2014

Terry O’Neill is the President of the National Organization for Women.

In his zeal to protect the shield, the commissioner lost sight of honesty, transparency, and concern for others’ welfare

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell meets fans on the field before a game between the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills at Ford Field on November 24, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. Jamie Sabau—Getty Images

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell meets fans on the field before a game between the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills at Ford Field on November 24, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan.
Jamie Sabau—Getty Images

Manipulation of law enforcement. Police and prosecutors in Atlantic City, N.J., where the Ray Rice incident occurred, were well aware of the horrific nature of the attack on Janay. Yet prosecutors allowed Rice to enter a lenient pre-trial intervention program, a move so unusual that New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney called for an investigation. Similar questions have been raised in a host of other caseswhere the cozy relationship between the NFL and local police have helped abusers avoid accountability, including Ray McDonald, Ben Roethlisberger, Adrian Peterson, and Ahmad Brooks.

Misleading the public: Keeping victims quiet and tamping down arrests and indictments for domestic violence are one way to create a false impression about the incidence and severity of domestic violence in the NFL. In the Ray Rice case, though, the two damning videos made any attempt at minimizing impossible. Goodell’s fallback strategy: deflect attention from the NFL’s policies by demonizing the individual player. Goodellclaimed repeatedly that he didn’t understand the seriousness of Rice’s attack because Rice misled him. That wasn’t so. An arbitrator has now ruled that Rice truthfully described exactly what happened in the elevator that night.

The NFL can rebuild its reputation, but to do so it must look beyond the surface and get to the substance. It must develop a policy that recognizes fundamental facts about domestic violence. Not gauzy stereotypes about men’s and women’s role in society, but actual facts.

First, any shock to an abuser’s sense of security–like being summarily fired–creates a significant risk of elevated violence. So before imposing harsh punishments, the NFL must have protocols in place to guarantee the safety of the victim, her children, pets, etc.

Second, the most important factor in a victim’s ability to get back on her feet and regain control of her own life is independent economic security. NFL wives and girlfriends frequently give up their own jobs and careers to follow their partners from team to team, raise the children and manage the households. The NFL profits nicely from this unpaid labor. The least it can do is guarantee economic security to a woman whose sacrifice has left her stuck, without the means to escape the violence and get a fresh start.

Third, like Janay Rice, survivors of domestic violence are strong, competent and compassionate people. They should not be judged for being protective of their partners, even if they are also fearful. They have the right to make their own decisions about how to move forward, and the league’s default posture should be to support their decisions. Stop blaming and silencing them. Start trusting them.

In his zeal to protect what Grantland calls “Goodell’s mythical shield…that is every player’s Constitution, Holy Bible, and secret handshake,” Goodell lost sight of what real reputations are made of: honesty, transparency, concern for others’ welfare and respect for their rights.

Now that Goodell’s attempt to deceive has been exposed, it’s clearer than ever that he cannot earn back the public’s trust in “the integrity of the game.” He must step down. At this point, the NFL’s image is tarnished beyond recognition. That shield is not just cracked; it is shattered.

Terry O’Neill, a feminist attorney, professor and activist for social justice, has been the President of the National Organization for Women since 2009.