This has been the NFL’s worst week.
In the span of five days, America’s favorite sport bombarded fans with a video of one player punching his wife, details about a former MVP hitting his son with a tree branch, reminders of two more lingering domestic violence cases — all being overseen by a commissioner, Roger Goodell, who has looked ill-suited to handle any of it.
Friday also brought news that speaks to the oversized violence of the game: one story about a study that showed nearly three in 10 ex-players face Alzheimer’s or moderate dementia, and another about the long-awaited implementation of a policy to test for human growth hormone.
Both those items might have been front-page news some weeks. Instead, they were virtual afterthoughts, while a sampling of some of headlines read: “Goodell’s Watergate,” “Goodell Shows Again that the NFL has Sold its Soul” and “Protect the Shield or Cover His Butt?”
“As unusual a week as I can remember in 40 years around the NFL,” agent Leigh Steinberg said. “What should have been as positive a week as they have, with opening weekend and a lot of good games, turned into a destructive minefield of negativity.”
On Sunday, games will continue with players satiating America’s thirst for its weekly dose of league-sanctioned, bone-jarring violence. The games will offer a break of sorts from the all-too-disturbing mayhem the league served up Monday through Friday.
On Monday, TMZ released a video of Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his fiancee in an elevator, prompting Goodell to go beyond the league’s new, hastily reworked domestic-violence policy and suspend Rice indefinitely.
On Friday, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was charged with child abuse for using a switch to discipline his son.
In between, Goodell’s reputation has been savaged in part because of his claim he hadn’t seen the Rice video until this week, even though The Associated Press reported the video had, indeed, been sent to the NFL in April.
The league hired former FBI director Robert Mueller to look into the NFL’s handling of the case. Meanwhile, a poll commissioned by ESPN found 55 percent of 544 adults surveyed believe Goodell was lying about not having seen the video.
“The mistake Roger Goodell makes is that, if this is just an ESPN story, then it stays a sports story,” sports agent Evan Morgenstein said. “The fact that I turned on TV and it’s the first story on ‘Morning Joe’ is a problem. You’ve got mainstream America, women and moms, discussing topics they’d never discuss in the past.”
They’ll have more chances to discuss.
The commissioner hadn’t weighed in on the Peterson case as of Saturday, though the Vikings said he would be inactive for Sunday’s game. Two other players with domestic violence cases open, Ray McDonald of the 49ers and Greg Hardy of the Panthers, are expected to suit up while their cases are open. Hardy has been convicted by a judge but is appealing.
“Every week those players play is a constant irritant,” Steinberg said.
The National Organization for Women is calling for Goodell’s ouster. So far, owners are showing support for the commissioner. On Saturday, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, whose refusal to change his team’s nickname has caused a PR problem of its own, issued a statement saying the commissioner “has always had the best interests of football at heart” and “we are fortunate to have him.”
Earlier in the week, former Cowboys executive Gil Brandt made it clear why that sentiment exists: “Owners not moving on from Goodell,” Brandt tweeted. “Record broadcast contracts, team-friendly (collective bargaining agreement), $1bn+ franchise valuations, etc. Follow the money.”
The money is the key.
“If the thing keeps spiraling and you get a boycott by sponsors, that’s checkmate,” Morgenstein said. “Nobody cares until the money starts getting pulled out.”
But so far, that hasn’t happened. And though Americans may be suspicious of Goodell, they show no signs of turning off the TV.
The CBS broadcast of “Thursday Night Football,” featuring the embattled Ravens against the Steelers, drew more than 20 million viewers. Much of the fanfare prepared for the broadcast was toned down, in deference to the news surrounding the game. CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said, “It’s important to realize we are not overacting to this story, but it is as big a story as has faced the NFL.”
And while it’s hardly the first time the NFL has dealt with tough issues, in the span of a week, the league’s well-oiled PR machine has lost control of the message.
“I don’t think any of this stuff is going away,” said Orin Starn, a Duke professor who studies sports in society. “It’s part of the sports news cycle. You get the scores, the profiles of players, the latest cheating cycle. I see this as more of the same. A bad week for the NFL, rather than some new development.”