NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was ordered Wednesday to appear at Ray Rice's appeal hearing in November, but the public shouldn't expect any major revelations from his testimony. In fact, Goodell probably will try to get through the proceedings without saying anything revelatory at all, argues one crisis management expert.
“I’m not sure that Roger Goodell is prepared to go before the arbitrator and discuss in detail the entire process [behind the Rice suspension],” said Jack Deschauer, vice president at Levick, a public relations and crisis management firm. “I think he’s probably going to give the same sort of responses that he has given so far in a more public setting."
The initial two-game penalty that Rice received in July for his assault on Janay Palmer, now his wife, was changed to an indefinite suspension after the Sept. 8 release of surveillance footage that depicted the attack. League officials have maintained that Rice’s penalty was increased because the account of the domestic violence incident that he gave Goodell this summer was far from what actually occurred.
NFL lawyers resisted the notion that Goodell should testify at Rice’s appeal hearing, offering NFL general counsel Jeff Pash and vice president of labor policy Adolpho Birch – who both were in attendance when Goodell first interviewed Rice – to appear in his place, ESPN notes. Rice’s representatives argue that he gave Goodell an accurate account, and that Goodell’s testimony would be crucial to the case. Goodell said earlier this month that he would let Barbara S. Jones, the case's neutral arbitrator, decide whether or not he would testify.
Some have argued that a poor performance by Goodell at the Rice hearing could have implications for a separate current investigation being conducted by former FBI Director Robert Mueller into the NFL’s “handling of evidence” in the case. Any inconsistencies discovered in Goodell’s testimony would, in theory, be compared to statements that he gave to Mueller. Coupled with a successful appeal for Rice, a damning report from Mueller could be enough to cost Goodell his job, Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio suggests.
“The worst-case scenario is that Goodell goes in, stonewalls, the stonewalling becomes a media story in itself, and then due to that stonewalling, Ray Rice somehow comes out of that hearing looking better than he would have if Goodell had given more information," Deschauer added. "Rice wins his appeal, Goodell stonewalled and failed, and then we come out of this with yet another bumbled part of this entire situation.”
But Goodell demonstrated his ability to hold up to scrutiny at a Sept. 19 press conference on domestic violence, where he maintained a carefully cultivated stance while fending off a barrage of questions from reporters. By Nov. 5, the NFL’s legal team will have ensured that he is well-equipped to handle any questions thrown at him by Rice’s representatives.
“The only thing that gets people interested in the Rice case again is any confirmation that the NFL knew more and covered it up or some other bombshell revelation. Nobody will get interested in highly nuanced discrepancies between the parties,” said Daniel Hill, president of Ervin Hill Strategy. “The commissioner's job is safe until the league starts losing corporate partners and sponsors or it is revealed that he deceived the public and more importantly team owners.”
Goodell kept his job through the height of public outrage generated by the Rice case and Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson’s child abuse saga. Two months later, with the public eye shifted elsewhere and the NFL’s profitability intact, it’s unlikely that an appeal hearing will change that.