Rice videos ruin Goodell's reputation

Ray Rice was always going to be the football player who made Roger Goodell and his league look good. Long before he was a 5-foot-8 star with comic book muscles and a Hollywood smile, Rice was a kid out of a New Rochelle, New York, housing complex trying to move his mother to a bigger and safer place.

I spoke with Janet Rice in the fall of 2006, when people were suddenly pumping up her son, a running back at Rutgers, as a candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

Janet didn't know much about the Heisman until a friend clued her in.

"I was finally told it would be like Jay-Z winning a Grammy and Denzel winning an Oscar," she said back then.

Ray Rice didn't win the Heisman, but he did win the Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens. He used to say he always heard his mother in the crowd above tens of thousands of other voices, and he had every reason in the world to play for her.

Ray's father had been shot dead when the boy was 1 year old. "I faced a lot of adversity," Rice told me once by phone, "and I had to be a man real young."

A man? No, Ray Rice never really did grow into the man he claimed to be. A second video surfaced Monday, via TMZ, in which the running back knocked out his fiancée and future wife, Janay Palmer, with a hard punch to the head inside an Atlantic City hotel elevator in February. This came after the first video showed Rice dragging the unconscious woman out of the elevator and dumping her limp body on the floor.

The Ravens had no choice but to fire Rice after they disgraced themselves by rallying around him, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had no choice but to turn his two-game suspension into an indefinite one.

As they love to say in football, the film never lies.

But Goodell has forever lost his moral authority to lead, anyway. He isn't going to resign, and the owners aren't going to fire him. Goodell helps those owners make zillions while banking an obscene wage himself, so he'll likely remain commissioner for a very long time.

But he needs to understand he has committed a personal foul against his legacy that is as permanent as pro football's standing as America's most popular sport. Goodell can't pick up this yellow flag, stuff it back in his pocket and walk away from the pile.

No matter how long Goodell lords over the NFL and no matter how often he tries to hide behind the stricter domestic violence penalties he has imposed and no matter his admission of gross misjudgment in the Rice case, these videos will haunt him.

Never mind the league's claim that nobody behind the cherished shield saw this second video before Monday. Never mind that NFL security has extensive law enforcement connections -- enough for a reasonable observer to believe some official had to have been debriefed on the contents of the second video that was in police hands, if not granted a private viewing.

Never mind that the New Jersey prosecutor in the criminal case should be ashamed of himself for knowing of the second video yet allowing Rice a pathway into a pretrial intervention program for first offenders.

What, exactly, did Goodell believe happened in that elevator? Didn't he realize the confrontation had to be at least as ugly and one-sided as it turned out to be? Wasn't the image on the first video -- of Rice dumping the unconscious Janay on her face -- enough to convince him the player had committed a violent act against a woman and needed to be severely punished?

Always remember Goodell's first instinct wasn't merely to hit Rice with the pathetic two-game ban but also to send out one of his lieutenants, Adolpho Birch, on ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike" show to defend the penalty against the almost unanimous belief it was far too lenient.

Goodell ultimately copped to his mistake and toughened his domestic violence terms to six games for the first offense and a possible life sentence for the second, only because public pressure forced him to.

The commissioner finally realized this wasn't another Spygate. He destroyed the evidence against Bill Belichick's Patriots in that one, even though a lot of football fans, the late Senator Arlen Specter among them, openly questioned why a commissioner would do something like that.

Goodell couldn't make TMZ's first video disappear, and this second one is here for keeps, too. Between the airing of the tapes, the commissioner met with the victim and her husband in his office. As soon as Goodell interviewed Janay in the presence of her attacker, he pretty much announced he wasn't interested in the whole truth and nothing but.

The Ravens? They blitzed Rice awfully late in the game, long after they set an early and appalling tone in May by tweeting out Janay's news conference comment that she "deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident."

The role of a woman being viciously assaulted by an employee of the Ravens, that is.

In the end, the football team and the football commissioner got what they deserved. Goodell might have moved past the Spygate and Bountygate messes and the hiring of fake refs for real games. He might someday move past the concussion crisis that continues to rattle his sport to its core.

But this is the game-changer. Rice was supposed to be one of the good guys, a commissioner's dream, a long-shot star who served his community, helped kids and fulfilled a life's mission of buying his mom a new home.

Ultimately, the ultra-likable running back turned out to be something else. And just as it will be nearly impossible to look at Ray Rice without summoning scenes of him punching his fiancée and future wife, it will be nearly impossible to look at Roger Goodell without recalling his staggering inaction in this case.

That's why even if the commissioner survives the videos, his reputation and legacy will not.