Roger Goodell's epic failure

As someone who publicly defended NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's two-game suspension of Ray Rice for domestic violence, let me start by acknowledging that the truth has revealed my defense to be horribly misplaced.

The inside-the-elevator video shows Rice, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, provoking, brutally assaulting and then casually and callously standing over his knocked-out fiancée (who is now his wife). His actions are sickening in their depravity and confirm a worst-case-scenario narrative I was reluctant to believe after seeing only the previously released, outside-the-elevator video.

I thought the full video would explain why: Why police originally charged Ray and Janay with simple assault. Why the prosecutor allowed Ray to enter a diversion program. Why Janay apologized for her role. Why Janay chose to marry Ray. Why the Ravens enthusiastically supported Rice and used their facilities in helping him rehabilitate his image. Why Goodell suspended Rice for only two games.

I wrongly and naively thought that she was the aggressor in the attack, that Rice reflexively shoved her to fend her off and she slipped, fell and hit her head. I did not think a man could sucker-punch a woman on tape and have the police, a prosecutor, the victim and the image-conscious NFL all work to treat the assaulter in a sympathetic fashion.

I did not think sexism could manifest itself this brazenly in 2014. Clearly, I was wrong. Clearly, as it relates to domestic violence and sexism, America has made far less progress than I thought. Baltimore's decision Monday to release Rice and the league's decision to suspend him indefinitely are not progress.

The Rice crime captured on video is reprehensible. Even Rice's and Goodell's original harshest critics -- people who called for a six- or eight-game suspension -- are shocked by the video's content. Anyone who watches this video must question whether Rice should ever be allowed to play again.

However, the real story here is the reaction to Rice's crime by police, the prosecutor, Ray and Janay Rice, the Baltimore Ravens and Roger Goodell. You could easily argue that the reaction is as reprehensible as the original crime because the reaction fosters the crime.

What we saw on video warranted prosecution, jail time and an eight-game or season-long suspension. But now the consequences need to be much worse and more far-reaching. It's no longer just about Ray Rice. It's about addressing the culture that allowed and/or orchestrated Rice sitting next to Janay as she apologized for her role in Ray sucker-punching her for no reason. The police and the prosecutor should've publicly objected to that public-relations farce. The citizens of Atlantic City, New Jersey, should hold those taxpayer-funded officials accountable for their dereliction of duty.

Ray Rice needs to be held accountable, too. He participated in that lie. He let his then-fiancée take responsibility for his failing and criminality. His unwillingness to own his mistake put his employer and the league in a difficult position. Had he been transparent with the Ravens and the NFL and worked with them to review the video, they likely would've handed Rice a more significant penalty and avoided a summer of controversy. Rice's cowardice should put his professional future in jeopardy.

But Rice's irresponsibility does not exonerate the Ravens or Goodell. Nor does their insistence that they had no access to the elevator video until TMZ published it Monday morning.

Ray Rice committed a crime. People who commit crimes are generally reluctant to tell on themselves. Rice's cowardice and apparent dishonesty are not surprising. The NFL's apparent willful ignorance about what happened inside the elevator is quite surprising. It's difficult to believe TMZ has better investigators than the multibillion-dollar NFL.

Goodell elected himself the league's top cop. Is he Barney Fife? Did he not talk to the police or hotel security personnel who saw the tape?

Surely, as a matter of criminal procedure, Rice and his attorneys had access to the video as part of "discovery." Or maybe I've watched too many episodes of "Law & Order"? Assuming Rice and his attorneys had access to the video, given Goodell's unchecked power, he could've easily compelled Rice to hand it over. And, if Rice and his handlers were reluctant to do so, it would've been a damning piece of evidence that the video was damning.

Weeks ago, when Keith Olbermann used the Rice suspension as justification for calling for Goodell's removal as commissioner, I thought Olbermann was going way too far.

I was wrong.

This is incompetence at a confidence-shaking level. I've argued from the outset of the NFL's personal-conduct policy in 2007 that Goodell made a huge mistake appointing himself the czar of discipline. By doing so, by playing to the crowd that clamored for public NFL discipline of private matters, he put himself at odds with the league's players, turned up the spotlight on off-the-field issues and placed himself in a situation that leads to where we are today.

Less than 24 hours after the first Sunday of the NFL season, a player who didn't touch the field or enter a stadium is the topic of conversation.

That is not a complaint. I'm a sports columnist who specializes in social commentary. I want these topics explored. As an American citizen and a sports fan, I'm concerned about our culture and sports' positive and negative impact on our culture.

I have an agenda different from Goodell's. His job is to protect the NFL brand. It's my belief he took on the role as czar of discipline -- rather than delegating it -- as a way of promoting his own brand. He loved the buzz of being the guy cracking down on out-of-control professional athletes.

But there's a reason the president appoints an attorney general. Crime and punishment are messy and complicated. They require a singular focus so major screwups are avoided, and the president's office needs distance from the inevitable mistakes. There have been 82 U.S. attorneys general and only 44 U.S. presidents. When the politics get tough, the attorney general is often replaced.

Goodell created this mess a long time ago. He should soon follow Ray Rice in looking for a new line of work.