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Sports

Roger Goodell, Explained (Unfortunately)

What's the deal with Roger Goodell? Glad you asked, because we took on answering the one question no one wants to deal with.
December 15, 2014, 2:00pm
Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

When it becomes necessary, Roger Goodell will remind you that he is not an attorney. This is doubtless something that Goodell's actual attorneys have told him to say, and it it is true. And so, when he's asked if he is aware of what a law says, or whether such a law exists, Goodell reminds the person asking him the question that he is not an attorney. It's a high-handed way of saying I don't know, a priggish refusal to honor a question with a response where a throaty grade school DUH would suffice.

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There's no reason for Roger Goodell to remind anyone that he is not an attorney, for the same reason that NBA commissioner Adam Silver would not need to mention that he is an attorney. Silver has the turtled mien and embryonic pallor that defines back-office lawyer types; everything he says sounds like an official statement. The lawyer-turned-commissioner that Silver replaced, David Stern, is perhaps the most thoroughly attorneyesque human the sports world has ever seen; he spent the last years of his commissionership smirkily sparring with the press in the same tone of delirious self-delight you'd hear from a first-year law student pointing out logical fallacies in an argument with his parents. Roger Goodell is not like this.

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More notably, Goodell is not like anyone. There has always been a peculiar and uncanny Teddy Ruxpin aspect to Goodell, the sense that, if he spoke long enough, Goodell's pre-recorded messages about excellence and the highest possible standards would loop back around and begin again. Everything is in-sync and reliably on-message, but something just doesn't quite scan about his public statements—both the blithe corporate-authoritarian ones and the more recent attempts at remorse and insight.

It's not so much that Goodell's apologies or explanations seem inauthentic, let alone seem inauthentic in a way that's unique among the rush of similarly cynical word-slurry that other powerful white men send sluicing down the discourse as a general rule. Our culture is crowded and deafening with variants on Goodell—similarly drowsy principal diction, variously hammish skin tones—delivering their own interpretations of the corporate grandiosity and precision-crafted insincerity that define the NFL's way of talking about itself.

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What makes Roger Goodell stand out from his peer group of Realistic Executive Boys is how authentic his inauthenticity seems. That is a different thing than saying that it's convincing when Goodell apologizes for some bit of baroquely hideous misjudgment or his league's latest callow idiocy. It's more to say that Goodell is authentically inauthentic. There's something mysterious about that. At least with Teddy Ruxpin, it was clear where the cassette went in.

Photo by Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

There is nothing much to miss about the men who occupied the NFL commissioner's office before Goodell, or about the versions of the NFL they ruled. Pete Rozelle held the job for nearly 30 years, taking over a prehistoric NFL that was fractious and fringe-y and weird. That NFL existed in a world whose maps don't even seem to rhyme with ours; Rozelle was in the same graduating class at Compton (CA) High School as Duke Snider, hero of the 1955 World Series. Rozelle made the league much larger and incrementally more governable, then was replaced by Paul Tagliabue, who came from the corporate law firm of Covington and Burling and returned there after 17 years as commissioner; Tagliabue shares his present Senior of Counsel title with people who held cabinet positions under Republican presidents and the former Arizona Senator Jon Kyl.

There are not illusions to have about these guys, really—first a salesman and then a lawyer, they were the men the NFL's owners deemed likeliest to advance their interests, and those interests haven't changed. The NFL has never really been virtuous or good, or dedicated to anything but iron bottom-line things, and there was no bygone era in which the NFL commissioner existed to do anything but wring out revenue and run over the player's union. Rozelle's task was to grow the league; Tagliabue's job was to consolidate those gains and safely corporatize the culture.

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Both were the right man for the job at the time that they occupied that job, and Goodell, too, made sense as the commissioner who would oversee the NFL's imperial phase. One of the biographical details that makes it into every story about Goodell—it was right there in last week's #longform Goodell-at-work article in the Wall Street Journal—is that he began angling for a job with the NFL while still in high school, and started with the league as an intern in 1982. If that first internship has the whiff about it of aristocratic partronage—Goodell's father was first a Congressman and then a Senator—Goodell deserves a certain amount of credit for, in the most literal sense, never quitting. Goodell was, in a very real and very strange way, raised in the NFL; some of the owners for whom he now works are people he has been calling "mister" for his entire working life.

If anything explains Goodell's tragicomic zeal for the NFL's brand and imagined integrity, it's probably this. From the outside, there's something darkly hilarious about the way the league has spent a year striding purposefully through a parking lot full of rakes, responding to each ensuing thwack in the face with a purposeful "this rake-to-face event is unacceptable, and we will do better at watching where we're going in the future." And then another manful step forward, another rake to the face, another solemn promise that this sort of thing will not be allowed going forward. There's something funny about all of it. But also: who keeps walking through that parking lot like that?

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Many of the problems that the NFL has created for itself—most notably through a domestic violence policy that the league has appeared to be making up, weirdly and not at all well, as it goes along—seem to be grounded both in the league's signature antihuman authoritarianism, and a presumed divine right to do exactly what it wants on a unilateral and as-needed basis. But, as the failures compound and intertwine, it's hard to escape the sense that a big part of the NFL's problem is a sort of metastatic insularity. The league's insistence that it is outside the rules that govern the rest of the world, and the Goodell Era presentation of the league as somehow being America, but moreso, has curdled into gospel. And so when the rest-of-the-world's problems came calling, the NFL found itself with one solution—a broadly understood and interpreted more power—that did not work at all, and no other ideas.

Given that Goodell has never seen things from any perspective but the NFL's—has never really known another workplace, has never concerned himself with things that did not concern the NFL's growth and enrichment—we might as well assume that it really never occurred to him to consider how wrong things have gone. They have, and he seemingly still hasn't.

The man in the Journal profile is purposeful, but also seemingly a bit dim and definitely implausibly, laughably cosseted. The paper follows him from one important lunch— always with powerful men, always in private clubs—to another; a brief moment spent listening to a call on a domestic violence hotline leaves Goodell in need of "a stiff drink." The impression left, throughout, is that of some chromosomally atypical late-Hapsburg Princeling very suddenly confronted with the need to assume a difficult military command. Goodell delegates everything, and understands shockingly little; he is assertive and confident, but almost poignantly ignorant. He's in charge, and nothing else.

Over and over again, Goodell seems unprepared for and startled by not just his own league's startling upreparedness to confront complicated problems, but by everything; the entire non-NFL world is somehow a troubling surprise. We might as well assume that Goodell wants to do good work in making the NFL, as he put it in October, "a leader in the domestic-violence space." But as he appears only to have noticed that domestic violence exists sometime during the preseason, this may take a while.

It may never happen, because Goodell can only work with the tools that he knows how to use. And as someone raised in the NFL's bizarre marble man-palace, these tools are mostly one velvet-covered mallet after another. His attempt at improving the NFL's domestic violence policy reflects this—there are steeper punishments and more disciplinary authority arrogated to the commissioner's office, some heroic posturing, and a reflexive dismissal of the player's union, because that is about as far afield as Goodell's executive mind can go. Nothing is fixed so much as it's amplified.

The Goodell revealed in the Journal profile—and in his leaked testimony at Ray Rice's appeal, and during the rare instances in which he is subjected to aggressive questioning—is someone who thinks and communicates in secondhand execu-talk and straight-line NFL platitudes. This is a language with some strong Chauncey Gardner notes: it's hard not to laugh at perfect-circle nonsense like "when we make decisions, we always get reactions." It's harder still not to wince at the simple-minded notes Goodell took while Rice told him how he drunkenly beat his fiancée unconscious in an elevator, which, ESPN's Don Van Natta writes, "nearly all… deal with Rice's positive character traits" and include the immortal "he's own it."

This is no way to think or talk about problems as serious as these; it is, just in its inherent inanity, insufficient. But it is the only language that Goodell knows. He's not an attorney, not at all. He's the NFL's own big red son, and there's something both ridiculous and perfectly predictable about how overmatched he is by the job he was raised to do.