BOSTON (CBS) — On Tuesday afternoon, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell informed the NFLPA (and the world at large) that he will not be recusing himself as the arbitrator in Tom Brady’s scheduled appeal hearing. He used 1,200 words to send this message.
I excerpted some noteworthy sections in the hours after the letter was released to the public, but given the letter’s wordiness, I overlooked one fascinating aspect that perhaps deserved attention.
In those 1,200 words, Goodell wrote the word “integrity” five times. He stresses time and time again, as he always does, that the “integrity of the game” is a chief concern of the league office. Goodell believes he is in position to protect the shield, to maintain the integrity of the game at all times.
He states this as much as humanly possible. In his pre-Super Bowl press conference, he said the word “integrity” 12 times, including one incredible answer that featured five utterances of “integrity” in just a 134-word span. This particular response came after Goodell was politely challenged by Rachel Nichols regarding what the league can do to avoid conflict-of-interest accusations when the league pays for investigations.
So the strategy was clear: When in doubt, and when backed into a corner, repeat the word “integrity” as much as possible.
And that continued on Tuesday with his letter to the NFLPA, when he deemed himself to be a fair and open-minded party capable of playing an impartial role in hearing Brady’s appeal case.
But what’s interesting from this particular letter is that Goodell also mentioned something that he does not often speak about — not publicly, at least. He referenced the Ray Rice appeal.
“That fact makes this matter very different from the Rice appeal, in which there was a fundamental dispute over what Mr. Rice told me in a meeting at the league office,” Goodell wrote in parentheses, not looking to spend too much time discussing that embarrassing stain on his history.
The Rice domestic violence controversy may seem like it took place eons ago, but it was in fact just last year when Goodell faced an avalanche of criticism and personal attacks for his soft punishment on Rice. The world — and Goodell — had seen video of Rice dragging his then-fiancee out of the elevator after knocking her out, and nobody could quite figure out how a two-game suspension was a punishment that fit that gruesome crime.
So after hearing numerous calls for him to lose his job throughout the summer, Goodell was given a Golden Ticket in early September — or so he thought. TMZ released video from inside the elevator (video which Goodell never even tried to obtain, despite Rice’s possessing the video and despite NFL security’s being aware of the existence of the video), which clearly showed Ray punching Janay and causing her to fall and hit her head on the railing. And Goodell hatched a brilliant plan.
Goodell was going to paint the criminal as a liar.
He could tell the world that Rice lied to him, that Rice claimed it was more of a slap, that Janay “knocked herself out,” that it was an ugly domestic incident, no doubt, but that it did not involve a punch to the head. What Rice told us was a “starkly different sequence of events” from what that video shows, Goodell figured he could say. After all, Rice’s testimony to the NFL took place in a closed-door meeting, so how many people will really know that I will be lying when I say that he already lied to us?
He’s already dirty, so who will care to take his side?
Who will people believe: him or me?
Well, as it turned out, the eventual appeal went in front of US District judge Barbara Jones. And she determined Goodell to be the one who lied.
“The sole issue in this matter is whether what Rice told the Commissioner and other League representatives about the assault at their June 16, 2014 meeting was ‘a starkly different sequence of events’ than what was captured on the ‘inside-the-elevator’ video. It was not,” Jones wrote on Page 9 of her 17-page ruling. “In so holding, I find that the NFLPA has carried its burden of demonstrating that Rice did not mislead the Commissioner at the June 16 meeting and, therefore, that the imposition of a second suspension based upon the same incident, and the same known facts about that incident, was arbitrary.”
Jones’ complete ruling is a compelling read, if you have a few minutes, but perhaps the best twist comes from the fact that the notes and testimony from the NFLPA’s attorney is what exposed Goodell.
Heather McPhee, an attorney for the NFLPA, “testified that Rice told the Commissioner: ‘they got into the elevator, they were still fighting, still arguing, and Janay moved toward him and again slapped or swung at him, and then he said, ‘And I hit her, and then she fell and hit her head on the railing.'”
From Page 11: “McPhee testified that she had been pleased because Rice had not downplayed the assault and had described it in the same terms that he had used in discussions with his representatives.”
Judge Jones also noted that McPhee’s clear notes were “more persuasive” than the notes from others in the initial closed-door meeting with Rice, including notes from Goodell. Jones determined that Goodell’s notes “are not detailed and do not contain any verbatim quotes of what Rice said happened in the elevator.”
It was in McPhee’s notes that Jones found this line: “And then I hit her.”
“McPhee testified that when she used quotation marks, that meant the words were the exact ones used,” Jones wrote on Page 14.
Jones then hammered home the point: Rice did not mislead the NFL or the commissioner, and the commissioner’s claims that Rice lied about the incident have no basis.
Page 14: “Based on all of the evidence, I conclude that Rice said, ‘hit,’ that he did not say ‘knocked herself out,’ and that he did not mislead the League in the June 16 meeting.”
Page 15: ” … this does not change the fact that Rice did not lie or mislead the NFL at the June 16 meeting.”
Page 16: “I have found that Rice did not mislead the Commissioner.”
Page 17: “Because Rice did not mislead the Commissioner and because there were no new facts on which the Commissioner could base his increased suspension, I find that the imposition of the indefinite suspension was arbitrary.”
That is, obviously, ugly for Goodell. OK. But why bring this up more than six months after the ruling was made? That’s a fair question, but it should be directed to Goodell himself.
He was the one who, in a letter intended to praise his own integrity as well as the league’s, referenced this appeal. And it was in this appeal when he saw strong public opinion going against a suspended player and used it as an opportunity to paint that player as a liar.
And here’s one last important distinction: All of this lying from Goodell came after the commissioner’s fake mea culpa.
This all came after Goodell said “I got it wrong” and wrote to all 32 NFL teams about the ways he failed in his initial discipline of Rice.
This was after he said, “My commitment has always been to do what is right and to protect the integrity of the game.”
The lies came after he wrote, “Our mission has been to create and sustain model workplaces filled with people of character. Although the NFL is celebrated for what happens on the field, we must be equally vigilant in what we do off the field.”
This came after he declared, “Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.”
He did not. Instead, he lied. He tried to scapegoat the bad guy, bolstering his own public image in the process. And it blew up in his face, and it’s there, written in plain English by Judge Jones for the world to see. And thanks to Goodell’s reference to it on Tuesday, it’s now fresh on all of our minds.
“With very few exceptions,” Goodell wrote in that late August letter to teams, “NFL personnel conduct themselves in an exemplary way.”
On this, Roger would agree. The man is always the exception.