Roger Goodell has disappeared. In the NFL's hour of greatest need, its leader has decided to remain silent and invisible. Poof! Vanished. For more than a week, as pictures emerge and indictments are filed and news conferences collapse under the weight of doublespeak and obfuscation, Goodell has sealed himself away from the mounting pile of rubble.
Where is he, and why? Is the commissioner himself on the NFL exempt/commissioner's permission list? His retreat from the public realm gives the impression of a boss who is not only inaccessible, but incapable.
This isn't going away soon. The Ray Rice decision and re-decision was followed by the Adrian Peterson decision and re-decision, which was followed by the Greg Hardy decision, which was quickly followed by Jonathan Dwyer's arrest for aggravated assault involving a woman and 18-month-old child at his home. Off in the distance there's the gathering sound of trouble, and everyone's ears are calibrated to pick up the tone.
And where is Goodell? Apparently holed up on Park Avenue, high above the fray. Sports Illustrated's Peter King quoted a source "with knowledge of ... Goodell's mindset" as saying, "Roger has determined that he will be a leader in the domestic violence space." In an email to ESPN.com, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello wrote, "He's been working every day (and much of the night) in the office this week on these issues."
This is no longer a Goodell problem. This is no longer a team problem. This is a league problem, and it cries out for a leader who can convince the public he stands for something more than corporate sponsorships and good PR. Why does Vikings coach Mike Zimmer have to shuffle his feet behind the microphone looking like he's about to pass a stone, answering questions he can't answer about a decision he didn't make, while the man who adopted the NFL's code of conduct policy is allowed to remain silent?
Maybe Goodell is chastened by the Rice situation, when a video revealed how badly out of touch Goodell was with the rest of the civilized world. Supposedly Goodell would have had to approve moving Peterson and Hardy to the exempt list. Maybe he feels radioactive right now, bound to make any bad situation worse, and feels it's best to let poor Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera -- and, notably, not owner Jerry Richardson -- face whatever discordant music comes their way.
There is a way out for Goodell and the NFL. It's not enough to order an "independent" investigation by former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, who is a partner in the law firm of WilmerHale, which helped negotiate the NFL's Sunday Ticket package with DirecTV. It has to go beyond this week's decision to hire four women to address the NFL's policies and programs relating to domestic violence and sexual assault. And do more than reassign vice president Anna Isaacson to oversee education, training and support programs relating to domestic violence, sexual assault and matters of respect. None of which stopped the National Organization for Women from calling for Goodell's resignation and, in fact, prompted criticism from the Black Women's Roundtable because none of the four were women of color.
New York crisis management expert Davia Temin says she would tell Goodell this: The league must use its reach and influence to devote itself to the issue of domestic violence, including child abuse. It should mandate its players and team employees to complete the strictest and most comprehensive domestic violence training in corporate America. It should buy in wholly and completely, not as a PR stunt.
"There's nothing worse than when it looks like you are being forced to act," Temin says -- but as a concerted effort to fix a cultural problem it did its part to break.
"The really wise leader -- to use an overused term -- leans into it and takes what's been given," Temin says. "It can't be seen as an opportunity but a chance to finally do what's right to do. Let it be known there will be no more wink-and-a-nod and a payoff, but true zero tolerance. At this point, I think it's his only chance."
(The Arizona Cardinals, undoubtedly wary of creating their own firestorm, got the message. They wasted no time deactivating Dwyer on Wednesday.)
It's come to this: Goodell might have just one chance to save his job and legacy. He has been called out by one mega-sponsor, the corporation that makes Budweiser, for what could be loosely interpreted as possessing a wayward moral compass. He botched the Rice decision, and along the way made the egregious mistake of interviewing Ray and Janay Rice together. Goodell no doubt watched the Panthers' news conference on Hardy on Wednesday afternoon. Did he recoil along with the rest of the world when Gettleman said any further treatment or therapy was up to the player?
"There's been a sea change on this topic," Temin says. "Now we have video because of the ubiquity of cameras. Things that have always happened behind closed doors are out in the open for everyone to see. They go viral over social media. These organizations can't back away from these things anymore. They can't be handled quietly in smoke-filled rooms. The way they've handled things in the past -- turning a semi-blind eye -- doesn't work anymore."
In times of crisis -- and make no mistake, this is a crisis -- leaders step forward. Owners, players and fans want accountability and even reassurance. It wouldn't take much. You're the NFL, so nobody ever demands much when it comes to transparency; you've made sure of that. All you have to do is answer a few questions, remind the world that a vast majority of the league's players are good citizens and vow to do something definitive about the league's abominable track record when it comes to domestic violence.
Goodell faces quite a task. From where he stands now -- and your guess is as good as mine -- it's going to take a long trip to reclaim the moral high ground.