Roger Goodell was on a mission to clean up the NFL after being named commissioner in 2006. Near the top of his list were issues involving player conduct and player safety. He accepted no excuses and no nonsense. He was the new sheriff, and he preached the importance of respecting the badge -- or, in this case, The Shield. He even posed for the cover of Time magazine in 2012 behind a bold, red headline that read: THE ENFORCER.
Roger Goodell, where have you gone?
The guy who was once criticized for being heavy-handed and detached when meting out punishment under the personal conduct policy has:
• Suspended just one player under the policy over the past two-plus seasons;
• Hinted that he might go easier on 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith after gun and DUI arrests because Smith spent five weeks in rehab last season;
• Declined to take action against Browns owner Jimmy Haslam despite Haslam's company agreeing to pay a $92 million penalty for defrauding customers;
• Suspended Ravens running back Ray Rice just two games even though a widely publicized surveillance video shows him standing over his unconscious fiancée (now wife) after reportedly punching her in an elevator.
What in the name of image makeover is going on here? The cynic would suggest that Goodell is attempting to lower the bar for the potential punishment of Colts owner Jim Irsay, who faces two misdemeanor charges after a March arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence. According to the police report, Irsay had $29,000 cash and numerous prescription med bottles and pills in the vehicle, struggled to stand up after stepping out of the vehicle, and refused a blood test, which resulted in his license being suspended for a year.
Goodell has said he wants to let the legal process play out before possibly disciplining Irsay, yet in 2010 he suspended Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for six games (reduced to four on appeal) without Roethlisberger ever being arrested or charged. By going easy on Rice, being invisible on Haslam and intimating leniency for Smith, critics argue, Goodell can avoid cries of a double standard if he's soft on Irsay -- even though he has said publicly that owners are to be held to a higher standard than players.
People close to Goodell say that he hasn't changed, that he's as vigilant and committed to protecting The Shield as the day he took office. Perhaps, but he's certainly going about it differently. He might not be Roger the Merciful, but he's no longer presenting himself as THE ENFORCER, an image he appeared to internalize two years ago when he unsuccessfully sought to suspend a handful of players in the Saints bounty scandal.
Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the man Goodell appointed to hear the appeals in that case, not only vacated the suspensions but essentially said Goodell acted as if on a power trip, angry because he had been lied to. "In my 40 years of association with the NFL, I am aware of many instances of denials in disciplinary proceedings that proved to be false," Tagliabue wrote in his ruling, "but I cannot recall any suspension for such fabrication."
Whether coincidence or not, the image of a kinder, gentler Goodell began soon afterward. Whereas he used to be front and center when it came to player discipline under the conduct policy, we now see teams taking the lead. Richie Incognito was suspended by the Dolphins, not by Goodell, in the alleged bullying scandal. Smith was sent to rehab by the 49ers, not by Goodell. Dolphins cornerback Don Jones was fined and sent to sensitivity training by the team, not by Goodell, for an anti-Michael Sam tweet.
Still, it would be naive to believe the commissioner was unaware of these punishments beforehand because clubs typically consult the league before taking action under the conduct policy. The cynic in me can't help but wonder whether Goodell's retreat to the background is part of a master plan to alter his image in hopes of securing HGH testing. He needs the union's approval to implement such testing, but the players' association has refused on the grounds that it wants neutral arbitration. In other words, it doesn't want Goodell as judge, jury and executioner.
In the meantime, Goodell has painted himself into a difficult corner. Once perceived as being too tough and inflexible, he now comes off as being soft on domestic violence -- even at a time when the league is courting female fans. If players can be suspended a minimum of four games for multiple failed drug tests, how is it that Ray Rice gets only two games? Unfortunately, Goodell declined to make himself available to answer that question. Apparently The Sheriff is better at firing figurative bullets than at taking them.