John Feinstein Blog: Goodell Must Come Out Of Hiding

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Roger Goodell (Credit: Elsa/Getty Images)

Roger Goodell (Credit: Elsa/Getty Images)

There were two stories that made news away from the field in the NFL in the past two weeks. Both occurred because of bad misjudgments made by two smart men.

The first story centered on Tony Dungy saying that he would not have drafted Michael Sam if he was still coaching, not because Sam is gay and out but because Sam being gay and out would be a distraction in the locker room. Ironically, the only distraction related to Sam’s presence since the St. Louis Rams reported to camp came about because of Dungy’s comments.

Dungy was in deep water on this right from the start—and he kept taking on water every time he tried to swim to shore.

Dungy’s politics didn’t help him—he’s publicly opposed gay marriage for years and has never denied the fact that, in his reading of the bible, homosexuality is a sin.

But that was only a small part of Dungy’s problem. No one was more outspoken in saying that Michael Vick deserved another chance after he had gone to jail on a dog-fighting conviction. Dungy has also been very pro-Tim Tebow, pushing for the quarterback—who happens to share many of Dungy’s Christian beliefs—to get one chance after another in spite of his failings as a quarterback.

No one has ever been more of a ‘distraction,’ in a football training camp than Michael Vick. Unless it was Tim Tebow. Clearly, the distractions they brought were entirely different but there’s no doubt that they were distractions.

One can also make the case that when Dungy became only the fourth African-American head coach in modern NFL history when he was hired in Tampa in 1996 that HE was a distraction. After he became a great coach in Tampa and Indianapolis, he used the platform he had built to urge that more African American coaches be given the opportunity he had been given. Dungy needed a chance—and got it—just as Sam needs a chance and is getting it.

So—politics aside—how could Dungy possibly say he didn’t want an openly gay player on his team because of distractions when he had championed at least two players whose presence was far more distracting than Sam will ever be?

As soon as people in the media began pointing out the hypocrisy of Dungy’s comments, Dungy and NBC—his employer—went into spin mode. First, Dungy put out a statement in which he said he did not believe Sam would be a distraction to the team or the organization. Then, in the VERY NEXT SENTENCE, Dungy said he would be a distraction for the media.

Okay, who exactly would be distracted? The media? Who cares? Fans? Who cares? No—the media presence brought on by Sam would have to distract who?: the team and the organization.

Having whiffed on that attempt, Dungy next went on radio with his NBC colleague Dan Patrick. During that interview, Dungy said he would never deny Sam a chance to play in the NFL but admitted he “didn’t approve of his lifestyle.”

Going there—lifestyle—was a huge mistake. Like anyone else who ever coached in the NFL, Dungy had players in his locker room who cheated on their wives; players who broke the law and, almost certainly, players who hit women. What exactly did Dungy think of their lifestyles? What’s more, it’s more than likely Dungy had gay players in his locker room too.

Of course some in the right wing media decided this WAS a political issue; that it was the liberal media’s fault for attacking Dungy because he didn’t fall in line with THEIR views on homosexuality. In truth, the story had very little to do with anyone’s views on homosexuality. Dungy had established where he stood on players who brought controversy—of ANY kind—to a locker room. That stance changed when the player involved was gay. Coincidence?

One might also ask what Dungy has to say about Ray Rice’s lifestyle. Rice was suspended for two whole games by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell—the second smart man to have a very bad week—after admitting to beating his then fiancée (now wife) into an unconscious state in Atlantic City earlier this year. The video of Rice dragging Janay Palmer off an elevator has been seen countless times and doesn’t get any less chilling when seen again.

Rice was able to plea bargain his way out of a trial by agreeing to enter a pre-trial intervention program. That didn’t change the fact that he beat up a woman. Goodell knew that. He also should have known that anything Janay Rice—she became Rice’s wife the day after he was indicted on aggravated assault charges—said to him was meaningless. There are NO mitigating circumstances when a man hits a woman unless she’s pointing a gun at him or coming at him with a weapon or threatening one of his children. That wasn’t the case here.

And yet, Goodell let Rice off with a two-game suspension and then, in the midst of the uproar that followed, sent someone named Adolpho Birch onto a radio show to defend the decision. Birch sounded evasive, arrogant and downright foolish, especially when he said that Goodell’s ruling sent a message to people on where the NFL stands on the issue of hitting women.

It sure did—a very bad message, that was badly delivered.

Meantime, the Baltimore Ravens, normally one of the NFL’s savviest franchises when it comes to public relations, were also not getting it. Coach John Harbaugh sounded almost annoyed when he was asked about the suspension as if Rice had been late for practice and somehow was facing discipline for that. The Ravens website carried stories about what a wonderful person Rice was and pumped up the ovation fans had given him at practice. Fans will ALWAYS cheer for a star player no matter what he’s done—as long as he’s THEIR star player.

The Ravens started to figure it out on Wednesday when Harbaugh finally  made it clear he was horrified by what Rice had done, although pleased with his handling of the aftermath. On Thursday Rice—finally—profusely apologized while—finally—taking questions from the media.

Goodell hasn’t been seen or heard from since the ruling. He will have to come out of hiding this weekend in Canton during Hall of Fame weekend. Maybe, given a week to think about how badly he dropped the ball, Goodell will at least announced that the NFL plans to do more to educate players and spouses about domestic violence and will spend some of its billions of dollars on working to help those who have been abused.

That won’t wipe out the mistake Goodell made on the Rice ruling but it would be a step in the right direction. And, without saying the words, it would be a way for Goodell to admit he made a mistake.

We all make them. Even smart guys like Tony Dungy and Roger Goodell.

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