Midweek Musings: Here We Go Again, Goodell

Just in time for the start of the season comes the latest revelations, via ESPN’s Outside the Lines, about the relationship between Roger Goodell and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft; specifically, how Goodell expedited the Spygate investigation and furthered perception that Goodell favored Kraft, only for Goodell to reverse course when Ballghazi (Deadspin’s term is so much better) came along and annoyed Kraft in the process.

Comments I’ve read elsewhere range from how the Patriots’ rule violation only meant a difference in 2007 when teams were asked not to do it (not true, the Pats’ filming of opponent’s defensive signals was illegal from the start, specifically based on where they did the filming) to how it’s not really that big of a deal (valid point) and besides, why didn’t the Patriots win more games (beside the point because a rule violation never guarantees success). Those, in turn, are followed by responses about how Patriots fans are acting ridiculous because they obviously never cared about the team until the Pats started winning Super Bowls.

The whole debate over whether or not the Patriots did anything wrong is nothing but a distraction from where the real issue lies. Let’s go over a few things.

First, when the Patriots won their first Super Bowl under Bill Belichick, you had the feelgood narrative about Tom Brady, the sixth-round pick who went from backup to starting quarterback after the star passer got injured and led his team to a Super Bowl win. It’s worth noting it was the second straight year this happened — the year before, Kurt Warner was a backup who became the starter after the star passer was injured and led the team to a Super Bowl win.

Second, when Goodell was named commissioner, it wasn’t long after that he stood front and center in disciplining players such as Adam “Pacman” Jones and Chris Henry for multiple arrests, which led to the rise of the “personal conduct” policy and the narrative of Goodell as the “get tough on ’em” commissioner who didn’t tolerate misbehavior.

The Patriots went on to win two more Super Bowls and the feelgood narrative about Brady reached a high point, until Eric Mangini, an assistant coach under Belichick, knew about Belichick violating rules when taping opponent’s defensive signals and essentially set up a trap to catch Belichick in the act, after the league had twice sent out warnings about the practice.

So the feelgood narrative about Brady was burst and it switched toward what the “get tough on ’em” commissioner was going to do about it. Along comes Goodell, handing down the maximum fine to Belichick, a six-figure fine to the Patriots and taking a first-round pick away for violating the taping rules. And so the “get tough on ’em” commissioner narrative continued.

Beneath the surface, though, there was knowledge about Goodell sharing a close relationship with Patriots owner Robert Kraft, to the point many in the NFL believed Goodell was biased toward the Patriots. That perception was fueled when Goodell had all evidence uncovered in the Spygate investigation destroyed.

Along the way, though, the Goodell narrative eroded each time he administered discipline for whatever made the headlines. The most notable examples since Spygate:

* The New Orleans Saints and their bounty program, in which Goodell “dropped the hammer” on everyone involved, only for Jonathan Vilma to challenge Goodell. Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue was brought in and some expected he’d blindly back Goodell. Instead, Tagliabue vacated the player suspensions and admonished Goodell for overstepping his bounds.
* Ray Rice, who was given a two-game suspension for a domestic violence arrest, prompting protest from people who believed Goodell didn’t take Rice’s infraction seriously. After Rice served his two games, new footage is released of Rice’s deed and Goodell responds with an indefinite suspension because he said Rice misled him. Rice challenged him and his suspension was vacated because a judge ruled that Rice did not deceive Goodell.
* Adrian Peterson, who is charged with child abuse, but placed on a “commissioner’s exempt” list rather than have the Vikings list him inactive for each game until his case is settled, and prompting concerns over how that list was utilize. When the case was settled, Goodell keeps AP on an indefinite suspension, which gets overturned by a judge.

And that brings us to Ballghazi. In this case, we have an infraction that, if you are honest, is even less significant than the taping violation. But because public outcry reached a fever pitch and perceptions about Patriots bias ran among other owners and coaches, Goodell suddenly does a longer investigation and delivers a “drop the hammer” punishment.

As we know, Tom Brady challenged him and the judge overturned the punishment — and in doing so, he didn’t comment on whether Brady was guilty or innocent, only that Goodell failed to follow proper procedures, ranging from what he needed from Brady to what punishment Brady could expect.

That brings us to the OTL piece, which reveals that the Patriots had illegally filmed opponent’s defensive signals more than on just the couple of occasions they were caught, that evidence was destroyed that might have revealed how long the practice had happened, and thus explaining a major reason why other owners and coaches believed Goodell favored the Patriots over other teams.

In other words, the issue at hand is not about how serious the Patriots’ violations are, but about Goodell’s inconsistency and lack of transparency when it comes to player and team discipline, and the problems that arose with his close relationship with one owner.

The only item that should vary based on the seriousness of a violation is the punishment. Investigative procedures and due process should not vary; they should be the same regardless of the violation. And the evidence continues to mount that Goodell has varied those procedures depending on whatever circumstance he thinks matters to him. His “protect the shield” mindset has become more about silencing public criticism, rather than instituting a fair and consistent process.

Consistency with procedures does not eliminate all complaints, but it can mitigate their effects. Inconsistency, and more importantly, outright favoritism only magnifies complaints and fuels perceptions, particularly when more evidence comes out about inconsistency and favoritism. In other words, it has the opposite effect of what Goodell wants.

As long as Goodell continues to act as judge, jury and executioner on all forms of discipline, nothing regarding the negative perceptions he faces will change.

As for the Patriots, Kraft has nobody to blame but himself. If he had just allowed Goodell to do a more thorough investigation of Spygate, it is more probable than not that fewer people would make a big deal out of Ballghazi.

(Note: I was originally going to do a NFL season preview and standing predictions, but the ESPN piece came along. I will do the season preview tomorrow.)

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.