Two weeks into the season, the National Football League is busy doing damage control. The powerful and lucrative league, as well its highly paid commissioner, are embroiled in controversy after a graphic video surfaced of star running back Ray Rice striking his then-fiancée Janay Palmer in an Atlantic City hotel elevator. Goodell was already under fire for his initial lenient response to the apparent assault. Now, increasingly heated questions focus on whether Goodell and the league had access to the video: What they knew, and when they knew it.
Which leads to the larger question: Will Goodell keep his job?
The commissioner seemed to have put the Rice controversy behind him by admitting that the league's initial two-game suspension of Rice was inadequate, acknowledging that he "got it wrong." But the emergence of the new, more explicit video forced Goodell to take action, and he quickly suspended Rice indefinitely. (Rice's team, the Ravens, ended his contract.) When asked whether anyone knew of the second video, Goodell denied the league had access to it before it surfaced publicly on TMZ.com.
“No one in the NFL, to my knowledge, and I had been asked that same question, and the answer to that is no,” Goodell told Norah O'Donnell on "CBS This Morning" on Tuesday. “We were not granted that. We were told that was not something we would have access to. On multiple occasions, we asked for it. And on multiple occasions we were told no. I understand that there may be legal restrictions on them sharing that with us. And we've heard that from attorneys general and former attorneys general.”
But on Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that a law enforcement agent claimed to have sent the Rice video to the NFL in April. The law enforcement official played the AP a 12-second voicemail from an NFL office phone number on April 9, confirming that the video arrived.
The AP report prompted harsh, widespread criticism. Chicago Tribune sports columnist Steven Rosenbloom said, "Goodell was either stupid or lying when he spoke to CBS News." The National Organization for Women lambasted the NFL's failure to deal with an endemic domestic violence problem.
Scrambling, the league hired former FBI director Robert Mueller as an "independent" investigator, who happens to be aided by two owners: John Mara of the New York Giants and Art Rooney II of the Pittsburgh Steelers. According to ESPN, the investigation could last weeks or months, which will do little do quell Goodell's impatient detractors.
Mueller's investigation could spell out several scenarios. But it's hard to imagine any version that successfully restores Goodell's reputation.
One scenario, and perhaps the best one for Goodell, is that the tape was delivered to the commissioner's office, and wasn't informed about it. Perhaps he was disengaged; perhaps a staff member protected him from knowing. Either way, the narrative would contradict Goodell's claims that he diligently tried to learn more about the elevator incident.
A second scenario would be that Goodell saw the most recent video but didn't think it required a more forceful response than he had already handed down. Public sentiment is clearly not with him on this. Although Rice has some defenders (including his now-wife), football fans and sports pundits have overwhelmingly expressed condemnation at Rice's behavior and at the NFL's apparent lack of outrage.
The most damaging outcome would be that Goodell saw the tape and lied about it, hoping that the issue would disappear without further tarnishing the NFL brand. If this is Mueller's conclusion, Goodell would almost certainly be fired (he is employed by the NFL team owners) or be forced to resign.
Goodell, 57, was named commissioner in 2006, and he swiftly instituted stricter penalties on personal conduct. In 2012, he was criticized for his draconian one-year suspension for New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, who was in charge of the team during a bounty scheme in which players were paid for injuring opposing players. This time, Goodell is taking heat for a response seen as far too lax. His role as an enforcer of player behavior standards has been severely compromised by the Rice scandal, and if other players are involved in conduct violations, Goodell's responses will be dissected from every angle.