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The NFL doesn’t need new leadership. It needs a new culture.
“Roger Goodell has to go.” A lot has been said of this over the past eight years since Goodell succeeded Paul Tagliabue as NFL Commissioner. Since then Goodell has endured all manner of controversies, from Ben Roethlisberger’s sexual assault charges to Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring to the bounty scandal, in which he had to suspend Super Bowl-winning head coach Sean Payton for a full season due to the revelation that the New Orleans Saints had been paying players extra stipends for excessively violent tackles.
At the time of that last proclamation, Goodell was heralded as a commissioner for the new, amoral times in the NFL, a beacon of foresight and good. USA Today wrote of him in 2012 that “[The Payton ruling] also ensures his legacy as a no-nonsense commissioner in an era that history will regard as being filled with nonsense.”
Two years ago, for the grievances some may have had, Goodell was viewed as a hard disciplinarian for a league in need of renewed respectability. Today, banners are being flown over NFL games calling for his dismissal.
It’s amazing what one screw-up can do to a career. Except it’s not just one. From his initial denials of any knowledge of the Ray Rice video, to yesterday’s announcement that now Arizona Cardinals RB Jonathan Dwyer will be joining the recent ranks of players excommunicated from their teams while under investigation for domestic violence charges, it’s no longer going to be enough to suspend Rice indefinitely while the NFL sorts this whole ugly mess out. The public is demanding, in increasing numbers, that somebody be penalized, and Goodell is likelier than not going to be the wicker man lit ablaze to address these concerns.
The question is, though, will it be enough?
Professional sports in general are changing, but in particular, the NFL has gone through notable alterations through its Goodell-approved ascent to heretofore unseen levels of success. From the increased awareness of the long-term ramifications of concussions to the league’s increased interest in embracing, rather than repelling, a female audience, Goodell has spearheaded outreach efforts to offer a kinder, gentler version of America’s most objectively violent sport.
But all of this appears to be for naught. Goodell’s legacy won’t be one of discipline or of growth (aside from the obscene amounts of money made by team owners during his run), but as the guy who knew that Ray Rice had violently attacked his fiancée in a casino and didn’t react until the Internet found out about it months later.
The question, though, appears to be largely misplaced in common conversation about Goodell. His ouster, after all, is generally being considered not as a matter of “if” but of “when,” and as such attentions are already moving to the much larger, far more complex question of what exactly the NFL is to do in the wake of all this. After all, it’s not like outside legal woes are particularly foreign to the NFL. In the past year alone, the league has had to weather everything from a high-profile murder case to a star wide receiver reportedly taking MDMA at the Kentucky Derby.
The question hanging over the heads of a great many fans is, simply put, what now? The A.V. Club’s John Teti acknowledges that most fans, ideally of some contemplative stock, are unsure of how to reconcile a game that many enjoy and have even made part of their lives with the increasingly apparent culture of indiscretion and silence that it sometimes fosters. Teti writes,
It’s become even clearer over time that Sheriff Goodell is motivated not by a sense of social order but rather by a self-satisfied paternalism—one that exacerbates football’s worst qualities rather than holding them in check. Sure, if you need someone to throw the book at a black kid who likes to smoke a little weed, Goodell’s your man every time. But when we need someone to properly educate players about the risks of playing football, Goodell encourages us not to worry our pretty little repeatedly concussed heads about it. He would also rather not talk about pitiful cheerleader pay because he is too busy hawking pink jerseys that demonstrate the NFL’s commitment to women.
The NFL is a uniting force, one of the few pop cultural commonalities that often seems to exist beyond politics or bias or any of the things that generally stop Americans from getting along with one another. Now, however, those things have forcibly encroached upon the bubble of highly paid men running into one another at high speeds before cheering legions of fans. And those fans are starting to turn on the league that brings it to them.
In response to CoverGirl’s woefully ill-timed ad campaign, one that encourages female NFL fans to “put your game face on,” a photoshopped image of that ad has gone viral. That image of a game-day model with a black eye has been making the rounds on Twitter and elsewhere, and for good reason. It’s a reminder of how seemingly little the NFL cares for one of its most lucrative fanbases, one that has elevated football to a previously unexplored tier of cultural ubiquity.
But with the league’s astounding bungling of the Rice situation, alongside other blunders such as CBS’ removal of a Rihanna song from its Thursday night broadcasts in the wake of the Rice video, it’s clear that the NFL has little idea how to proceed. This, after all, is unseen territory. The Internet has become a powerful tool in raising awareness, starting hashtag campaigns, and organizing boycotts, and the league has rarely been as embattled as it is at the moment. Not since Janet Jackson’s partially exposed breast have so many people been so apoplectic about the state of broadcast football.
But whatever it is that the NFL has to do, it has to do it soon. Grantland’s Louisa Thomas, in her excellent examination of domestic violence issues in recent NFL history, notes that “very few [NFL players] will ever beat women.” She continues, “Most of them are good guys trying to do a job. Still, the job they do is part of a culture of aggression. Football is a pantomime of war, down to the pseudo-military tactics. But it is not a pantomime of violence. It is actual violence.”
The Rice video, and the league’s woeful handling of its fallout, has raised a lot of questions that the NFL and its fans alike are hardly ready to answer, about the issues of injury and the ethics of professional football on a broader level. And while Roger Goodell has to go, and he likely will sooner rather than later, his exit won’t be the ending of a tumultuous chapter in NFL history. It’s only just getting started.