Year after year after year, as a flagship franchise of the NFL, the New York Giants have publicly supported the league office by design. When the owning Maras were family feuding in the late 1970s, it was no coincidence that a commissioner, Pete Rozelle, settled the dispute by recommending a candidate for general manager named George Young.
Only at his desk, stewing over this issue or that one behind closed doors, Wellington Mara would write blistering letters to the commissioners of his time, Paul Tagliabue among them. Wellington's son John has fired off his share of angry missives too, and if you've ever seen the otherwise professorial president and co-owner of the Giants react to a missed tackle or a blown call, you would never doubt that.
But now comes John Mara's real moment of truth, his chance to declare who he is and what he really stands for. Is he an owner who cares mostly about protecting his partners and those who have served his bottom line? Or, if the facts demand it, is he a man with a moral compass strong enough to carry Roger Goodell out on that shield he always talks about protecting?
Along with Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II, Mara has accepted Goodell's invitation to oversee former FBI chief Robert Mueller's investigation into Goodell's gross mishandling of the Ray Rice case. It's all a bit bizarre, this decision by a commissioner to launch an investigation of the man in his bathroom mirror by hiring someone (Mueller) out of a law firm with business ties to the league (WilmerHale), and then asking two longtime in-league allies to supervise it. ... And then having the nerve to call it "independent."
So now you know how a man banking $44 million a year could make a series of 10-cent decisions after one of his players punched out his future wife. Goodell was arrogant enough to believe he could do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, and maybe he still feels that way. Maybe he thinks he just ran a fumblerooski on the critics calling for his head, and a Statue of Liberty play on those in Congress bearing down on him.
Either way, after TMZ aired footage of Rice knocking out his fiancée, Janay, in that Atlantic City casino elevator, and after the AP reported that a law enforcement official sent that video to the NFL in April (Goodell had denied seeing it, or knowing of any employee who had seen it), Roger the unartful dodger is scrambling for his professional life. If he was only trying to take control of a story that had spun out of his control, well, at some point he'll have to sit down and answer for his actions, or inaction.
Mueller was tough enough to lead a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam. Despite his law firm's connections, he'll be tough enough to ask the questions that must be asked.
And this is where Mara comes in. With Rooney at his side, he's charged to ensure that Mueller has unlimited access to all people and records relevant to the case. "We agreed that the scope of the investigation should be aimed at getting answers to specific questions," the two owners said in a statement, "including what efforts were made by league staff to obtain the video of what took place inside the elevator and to determine whether, in fact, the video was ever delivered to someone at the league office, and if so, what happened to the video after it was delivered."
Fine. Sounds great. But what happens if the Mueller report comes out like George Mitchell's report on steroid use in baseball, or like Louis Freeh's report on the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State? What if there's sufficient evidence Goodell saw that second video before handing down his two-game suspension of Rice, or knew of subordinates who did, or remained willfully blind to the video's presence in his building, or made only the bare-minimum attempt to secure the tape in the first place?
What if Mueller finds that Rice wasn't ambiguous at all in his meeting with the commissioner, and that the Baltimore Ravens running back did tell him that he'd hit his fiancée in that elevator, as reported by Don Van Natta Jr. of "Outside the Lines"?
Would John Mara really lead the ownership charge to run Roger Goodell out of the league?
"Our sole motive here is to get the truth," said the Mara/Rooney statement, "and then share Mr. Mueller's findings with the public."
And then act on those findings, of course.
But after reading Mara's Wednesday statement in support of Goodell, right-minded observers want to know if Mara has already compromised himself. Though the Giants' president and co-owner said he was "dissatisfied" with the two-game Rice penalty, he praised the steps Goodell took to toughen the NFL's domestic violence policy and called the notion that the commissioner's job was in peril "misguided."
The AP report changed everything. Mara declined an interview request, but someone close to him said the owner and the entire front office were shocked by the report. Asked if Mara wanted to reconsider his stated position on Goodell's job security, the person close to him said, "If John has reason to change his [Wednesday] statement, it's going to be an entirely different statement."
No, that wouldn't be good news for his friend Goodell. Mara is a member of the NFL's competition committee and chairman of its management council's executive committee. Goodell helped him land the Super Bowl for MetLife Stadium, and when Mara and Jets owner Woody Johnson were both angling to host the first regular-season game in that stadium in 2010, Goodell gave the honor to the Giants after he said they won a coin toss that wasn't witnessed by either team; Johnson had requested a coin toss with team reps present and ripped the commissioner for a lack of transparency.
Goodell, destroyer of the Spygate tapes, has never been a big fan of transparency, a fact that has landed him in this ungodly mess. He clearly feels like he's in good hands with Mara and Rooney supervising this investigation, as the Steelers have long shared the Giants' league-centric ethos. In the end, Goodell sees the team owners as part of one big, happy, wealthy family (actress Rooney Mara, great-granddaughter of the two franchise founders, is the embodiment of their union) that keeps the NFL machine churning.
Except that on the New York/New Jersey side of the Giants/Steelers marriage, John Mara has made some tough decisions before. He's the one who told his brother and fellow executive, Chris, that he didn't win the general manager's job that was going to Jerry Reese in 2007, even though Chris had paid his scouting dues outside the organization and had returned to play a significant role in the draft-day acquisition of Eli Manning.
John Mara understood why his business partners, Steve and Jonathan Tisch, didn't want a co-owner's sibling making the football decisions, and didn't force the issue. Chris stayed on, the Giants won two Super Bowls under Reese, and John solidified his standing as one of the best leaders in the sport.
In fact, Mara had been running a clinic on how to be a sports scion in New York while Jeff Wilpon, son of anarchy, had been doing the opposite with the Mets long before a fired female executive sued him for allegedly discriminating against her because she was pregnant out of wedlock.
Not that Mara has a perfect record with the Giants; he was working under his father in the '90s when the team suited up Christian Peter and Tito Wooten, players with documented histories of assaulting women. That was then, this is now. Times and attitudes have changed in the NFL, if only because Ray Rice got caught throwing his left hook on camera.
Now the commissioner's office looks as broken as Mara said the Giants' offense was last winter, and he needs to do something about it. If Mueller's investigation shows that Goodell is a liar, or an incompetent, or a leader who simply didn't care that much about a battered woman, Mara can't worry about that comfy, cozy relationship between his franchise and the league, not when a free pass for the commissioner -- for the sake of old times -- would destroy his own standing in the sport.
He'll have a simple pep talk to make then. John Mara will need to rally the owners around the common cause of finding Roger the unartful dodger a new line of work.