Roger Goodell is a populist with no moral core and a trunk full of costumes. Surely, beneath the veneer of faux righteousness, he believes certain things—he's a person, after all—but he is a great executive because he grasps the purpose of his job, which is to be an instrument of the NFL's interests. This means being a man without values. All that's important is that the league stays outrageously popular. He'll do whatever needs doing in service of that objective.
On Tuesday afternoon, Goodell played the role of a take-no-guff sheriff, serving Colts owner Jim Irsay with a six-week suspension and the maximum-allowable $500,000 fine for driving under the influence of a cocktail of prescription drugs. In an open letter to Irsay, Goodell was paternalistic: "I have stated on numerous occasions that owners, management personnel, and coaches must be held to a higher standard. We discussed this during our meeting, and you expressed your support for that view, volunteering that owners should be held to the highest standard."
Goodell's pose has had the intended effect, having garnered him praise in various blustery columns for daring to be as tough on an owner as he has been on players. That viewpoint isn't entirely well-informed—it forgets Josh Gordon is going to miss an entire season because he likes to smoke weed—but, sure, Goodell has shown that he's not afraid to occasionally slap the wrist connected to the hand that feeds him. It doesn't mean he's a man of principle, but it makes him appear as something like one.
Appearances are all Goodell cares about. He'll play whatever character best serves the NFL on a given day. In the Ray Rice case, he was initially a pedantic lawyer, explaining in long, obfuscatory sentences why he couldn't bring the hammer down because of, uh, precedent or something. When the public bristled at this reasoning, he disappeared behind the curtain and came back as Moses carrying the tablets down from Mount Sinai. "I didn't get [the Rice decision] right," Goodell offered in a mea culpa appended to an announcement of the league's new domestic violence policy. "Simply put, we have to do better. And we will."
By positioning himself as the NFL's head disciplinarian, Goodell has made this schizophrenia a necessary aspect of his job. Goodell decided when he took over for Paul Tagliabue in 2006 that the league needed to be policed more stridently. He started to punish players not only for breaking the law, but also for incidents that merely looked bad. His aim was and still is clear: He wants to keep the bad behavior of his employees—and now, evidently, his colleagues in various NFL front offices—out of the papers and off ESPN. Every DUI or bar-room brawl chips away the NFL's mass appeal, its lucrative brand. Goodell obviously took note of what happened with the NBA in the early 2000s, when its players were (wrongly) perceived as criminals and thugs. David Stern made his players wear suits to press conferences. Goodell's got a heavier hammer. He uses it whenever he has to.
But of course he can't be honest about his intentions. He can't actually let the cynicism show through. So he couches suspensions and fines in rhetoric about moral standards and professionalism. Goodell is always doing what's right, and if doing what's right also happens to be good PR, well, that's just a happy coincidence. The commissioner takes many forms, but at his core, he's a people-pleaser. And that's the only thing he wants to be.