CANTON, Ohio -- Roger Goodell screwed up the Ray Rice decision royally and still doesn't understand why. For those reasons, it is time for the NFL commissioner to give up his absolute power over the league's personal conduct policy.
The judge-jury-executioner act is played out, and Goodell, who spoke Friday for the first time since levying a two-game suspension against the Baltimore Ravens running back for domestic violence, seems to know it. While he once wielded the policy with new-sheriff bravado, he now seems almost reluctant to wield it. And the result is that he's wielding it very poorly.
We don't know why this is. It could be he's rattled by the way players acted toward him in the wake of the lockout in 2011. It could be he was shaken by former commissioner Paul Tagliabue's reprimand in the wake of the Saints bounty scandal in 2012. Or he could be just flat-out tired of trying to make value judgments about which off-field behavior is worse than another. But whatever the reason, he needs to turn this power over to a committee or an independent arbitrator, and he needs to do it as soon as possible. He's not especially good at it anymore, and he appears to have lost sight of the policy's original purpose.
"You've got to deal with the facts, OK?" an obviously emotional Goodell said when asked about critics who are ripping his punishment of Rice for being so much less severe than drug suspensions the league routinely hands out. "We have a drug program that's collectively bargained and has a step process. It takes four incidents before you actually reach a suspension in a drug case. So you have to respond to the facts here."
No, he doesn't. The legal system is there to respond to the facts. That's the place where the punishment has to adhere strictly to externally imposed guidelines with respect to the crime. The NFL's personal conduct policy is quite another matter.
Goodell and the NFL established the personal conduct policy to disinfect the league's public image -- to make it clear to NFL fans that rotten off-field behavior by players is not condoned by the league. At its core, the policy tells fans that NFL players are being held to a higher standard of behavior than the legal system imposes. If Goodell is basing his punishments on what the courts are deciding about his players' conduct, the personal conduct policy becomes redundant and irrelevant.
"I take into account all of the information before I make a decision on what the discipline will be," Goodell said. "In this case, there was no discipline by the criminal justice system. They put him in that diversionary program."
Right, but the criminal justice system does that as a means of conserving resources. It basically decides that a first-time offender, such as Rice, doesn't pose enough of a continued threat to require a trial or incarceration, both of which cost the justice system a great deal, and then monitors his behavior to make sure the decision was correct.
The NFL needs no such compunction. The NFL can hand out discipline for the purpose of sending a clear public message. And in this case, the league should have.
The "facts" that Goodell is stubbornly ignoring are that he and his league operate as an incredibly public entity and that the perception of what they do matters in a way that's vital to their very existence. In the case of Rice, Goodell was too worried about being fair to the offender and lost sight of the way his decision would be received by his customers. If anything, he should have leaned toward over-punishing Rice, rather than risk the perception that he under-punished him.
Goodell is technically right that the comparison between this and drug cases is apples-to-oranges. But the vast majority of people who examine everything the NFL does couldn't care less about semantics. The fact is that the drug penalties are on the books as established guidelines for punishment for NFL player misconduct. It is absolutely not silly to think they could or should be used as benchmarks for adjudicating other discipline matters, and critics who are making those comparisons were invited to do so by the surprisingly lenient punishment Goodell handed down to Rice last week.
Striking a woman is worse than failing three or four marijuana tests, and it's 100 percent fair for the ticket-buying, jersey-wearing, RedZone-channel-guzzling public to expect the punishment to be worse, as well. Goodell still has decisions coming up on Greg Hardy, Aldon Smith, Josh Gordon and Jim Irsay in the coming months, and each of those is now going to be judged -- very publicly -- against this decision. Goodell has put himself in a no-win situation with one of the most tone-deaf decisions of his tenure, and it's only going to get uglier and more complicated for him from here.
The only way out of this mess that Goodell has created is to do the right and fair thing: Step away from the personal conduct policy and get others to come in and at least help him adjudicate it.