During his annual state of the NFL press conference on Friday, Roger Goodell spoke convincingly of the change of heart he's undergone since the two-game suspension for Ray Rice shook his credibility. Goodell said there was "a lot of humility" now within the halls of the NFL.
But it wasn't long before he undercut that very notion with the way he responded to Rachel Nichols of CNN. She has been asking sharp -- and necessary -- questions of the commissioner ever since video of Rice punching his fiancé in an elevator was posted on TMZ.
On Friday, she asked a legitimate question about the conflict of interest in having Robert Mueller conduct an NFL investigation, and whether Goodell could fairly oversee a cheating scandal involving Patriots owner Robert Kraft, to whom he is beholden for job security and a reported $44 million annual salary.
Asked Nichols: "You guys have faced a lot of problems over the past year that have a very wide range, but what a lot of the issues have in common is a conflict of interest. When you do something like hire an outside investigator like Ted Wells into the Patriots investigation, you're still paying him, and Robert Kraft, who owns the Patriots, is still paying you. So, even when you do everything right in one of those situations, it opens you guys up to a credibility gap with some of the public and even with some of your most high-profile players. What steps can you guys take in the future to mitigate some of those conflict-of-interest issues?"
Goodell's response: "I don't agree with you on a lot of the assumptions you make in your question. I think we have had people that have uncompromising integrity. Robert Mueller is an example of who -- I think you asked me the same question last fall about a conflict of interest -- their integrity is impeccable. Ted Wells' integrity is impeccable. These are professionals that bring an outside expertise and an outside perspective, and their conclusions are drawn only by the evidence and only by the attempt to try and identify that truth. So, I think we have done an excellent job of bringing outside consultants in. Somebody has to pay them, Rachel. Unless you're volunteering, which I don't think you are, we will do that. But, we have the responsibility to protect the integrity of the league, whether we have an owner that's being invesitgated, whether we have a commissioner that's being investigated, they're being done at the highest level of integrity and quality."
Read the middle part of Goodell's answer again. "I think we have done an excellent job of bringing outside consultants in," he said. "Somebody has to pay them, Rachel. Unless you're volunteering, which I don't think you are, we'll do that."
So much for humility.
It was an arrogant and dismissive response to a legitimate question. And the optics were awful. Here is a league trying to improve its image among women, when the commissioner can't treat a female reporter with the professionalism she is due.
But Goodell's rhetorical question isn't the only clue as to how much the league has -- or hasn't -- changed its approach in the wake of the Rice case. There is also the way it has -- or hasn't -- tried to include the players in efforts to change policy and education. With the National Football League Players Association asking to reopen the collective bargaining agreement and collaborate on a dramatic revision of policy, the league has declined.
The NFLPA has filed a grievance against the league, which could tie the two parties up in legal issues rather than allow everyone to move forward in conjunction.
The NFL has also moved forward without a formal assessment of the way the league dealt with domestic violence and sexual assault allegations in the past. It's hard to move on without organizational self-reflection, but if the league has looked inward, it hasn't let the world in on those findings.
Asked about how the league has changed, Goodell pointed to recent hires of women and experts in anti-violence -- but the league has also hired a chief lobbyist and some public relations specialists.
As much as the humility may be genuine, there is plenty of strategy in what Goodell says as well. Before he can convince NFL fans that there has been genuine culture change in the NFL, the league needs to show it can be inclusive even when it isn't convenient.
That's something Goodell will have to pay for himself -- and not with a check.