When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell commented early on this season that the NFL was experiencing a ratings drop, many saw it as a fluke; inevitably, they believed, the drop would correct, ratings would revert to the mean, and business would continue as usual. Nearly halfway through the season, however, the problem has persisted, and it cannot be ignored; week in, week out, fewer fans are tuning in. Goodell spoke to the media following the league’s fall meetings and claimed that viewership was down ten percent from last season. That’s a huge drop, and no matter how much Goodell dismisses it, he must accept an increasingly evident reality: it is his hypocrisy and failures as a leader that have caused the drop in ratings. It’s time that he step aside.
Goodell made it his mission this season to eradicate excessive touchdown celebrations and post-play taunting — in a vacuum, this is a noble pursuit. The harsh penalties the league has instituted this year have certainly cracked down on the outrageous behavior some players have expressed in the past, and I doubt many fans would argue that this in and of itself is bad for the league. Goodell is absolutely correct when he says that the “players are role models, and others look at that at the youth level.” The NFL is immensely popular, and many young players look to their favorite professional players as role models; it’s not helpful when those players act like petulant children on the field.
Yet Goodell has absolutely no moral authority on this issue, and the idea that Goodell can speak credibly about positive role-modeling for American children is risible. Throughout his tenure as commissioner, he has abdicated his responsibility as a leader; every time he has been faced with an opportunity to do what is right, particularly regarding domestic or sexual assault, he has instead done what is convenient.
It started with the Ray Rice domestic abuse incident in 2014. When footage released showing the Baltimore Ravens running back dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an elevator, Goodell stepped in and suspended him for a laughable two games. Fans were justifiably furious. How is it, they asked, that players face longer suspensions for smoking pot than they do for physically assaulting women? Eventually, Goodell responded to the public outrage and suspended Rice for the rest of the season. Yet the damage was done. Goodell had shown the country that the image of his league was far more important than taking a stand against violence.
Now, Goodell has once again mismanaged another high-profile assault case. After it came to light prior to the season that Giants kicker Josh Brown had abused his ex-wife, the NFL suspended him a paltry one game. Only when it surfaced that Brown himself admitted he had emotionally and physically abused his ex-wife did Goodell step in and take a stand. That’s generally how Goodell chooses to handle cases like these: He gives his players a slap on the wrist, hopes the issue gets buried, and only takes any decisive action when damning evidence comes to light. Goodell calls it being cautious. I call it terrible leadership.
With great power comes great responsibility. As the leader of the multibillion-dollar enterprise that is the NFL, Goodell has the power to do great good. And yet time and time again, he has failed. His latest posturing regarding excessive touchdown celebrations and the way they affect America’s youth is hypocrisy at its finest. He has butchered his handling of sexual assault cases so miserably that at this point, he has no authority — none at all — to take any moral high ground. Too often, he has so often prioritized the NFL’s image over doing what is moral, over doing what is fundamentally right. Given his status and his salary, that’s unforgivable.
The players deserve better. The coaches deserve better. And the fans deserve better. Roger Goodell has had his chance, and he’s blown it. It’s time for somebody else to lead.
Contact Andrew Ziperski at ajzip ‘at’ stanford.edu.