Near the end of a 1 hour 7 minute and 12 second podcast nine days ago in which ESPN impresario Bill Simmons and reporter Don Van Natta Jr. did not waste a single second during their fact-by-fact systematic eviscerating of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the host made an an almost casual announcement before signing off.
“For the record, I’m done talking about this,” said Simmons. “I feel like we covered every single part of this and I’ve said my piece on this story. The reality was that this was really badly mishandled, everyone can have their own opinions on this, I’m clear what mine are.”
Simmons certainly has been clear. He was suspended for three weeks in September after calling Goodell a liar on his B.S. Report podcast and essentially daring his bosses to punish him for it.
Perhaps there was some you’re-not-the-boss-of-me petulance at play there, but it also exposed a rich coincidence: Though this suspension was not quite as absurd as the hit Keith Law took for introducing Curt Schilling to some fundamental concepts of science, Simmons was absolutely the recipient of an arbitrary punishment.
Which is of course why we’re talking about Roger Goodell in the first place. Arbitrary punishment is his specialty.
Since returning from his suspension, Simmons’s approach to discussing Goodell has been a brilliant one. Rather than railing in the opinionated voice of a columnist or host, he’s sorted through the facts and the timeline of events to expose Goodell.
He’s reminded us of missteps we may have forgotten. He’s reported important background if not new facts, and most important, he’s given another large forum to an accomplished reporter like Van Natta, a Pulitzer Prize winner who reports doggedly and writes complicated stories with a grace that makes the details easy to comprehend.
Simmons knows the correct questions to ask, too. He knows this material. He may be better known as a writer and an analyst and a host and a producer and an ideas guy and a brand, but he’s also demonstrated the inquisitiveness and relentlessness that suggest he possesses genuine journalistic chops.
Sure, perhaps a small motivation is vengeance. ESPN suspended me for calling him a liar? Well, I’m going to prove I’m right! But who cares about the various motives? The message is what matters. And it must continually be repeated.
If you haven’t noticed, Goodell’s approach to all of this has been to wait for the voices to die down, then go back to business as usual. He kept a low profile in the aftermath of his multi-bunglings of the Ray Rice situation, presumably in his ivory tower on the coast of Maine. Van Natta noted during the podcast that the strategy is a common one when public figures are in full-damage control mode.
“Often what happens when an investigation gets to put into motion, it runs the clock out,” he said. ” The public loses interest. ‘Oh, god, we’ve got to hear about this again?”
Goodell has gradually been returning to the public eye lately. The Wall Street Journal ran a package of behind-the-scenes pieces that portrayed him, to much annoyance and disbelief, a Man In Command. It’s only a matter of time before he meets Peter King for chili and another smirking photo op.
Goodell is counting on all of this fading away. What’s more maddening is that so are the men who employ him, who sign off on that $44-million salary — the owners. Television ratings are as massive as ever. So are their bank accounts. So what if he’s an empty suit who habitually makes misguided and arbitrary judgments based not on information and precedent, but by which way the wind is blowing? We’re rich and getting richer. Good job, Rog! Here’s your bonus. Say, can you hand me a slice of pizza?
Three months ago, there were headlines telling us he can’t survive this. Now he’s back, and one of the results of his blunder upon blunder is that he has more arbitrary power than ever under the new player conduct policy.
This comes despite more damning recent news: the judge in Rice’s appeal did not believe his claim that he revised Rice’s suspension from two games to indefinite only after becoming aware of the video of Rice punching out his now-wife Janay.
Then, a couple of days after recording the podcast with Simmons, Van Natta received a copy of the transcript from the appeal hearing in which Goodell played semantics games: Summarized Van Natta:
The portrait of Goodell that emerges from the hearing is of a chief executive who is comfortable with delegating to his leadership team and who relied on his security staffers to come to him with information about the Rice case; of a leader who could not recall several key details of the Rice matter or prior disciplinary cases he oversaw; of a self-described disciplinarian who didn’t ask Rice any questions about the altercation during the player’s June 16 disciplinary hearing; of a CEO who more than once contradicted himself on key questions during the hearing.
Goodell essentially carried himself with the manipulative I’m-just-a-simple-man approach of the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.
The differences between the two are obvious, though. Goodell may not be unfrozen. And he’s definitely not a lawyer, which opens up another series of questions, beginning and perhaps ending with this:
If Roger Goodell truly believes his lack of law degree prevents him from carrying out all of his duties as commissioner, shouldn’t he quit?
— Michael McCann (@McCannSportsLaw) December 10, 2014
His recovery of power, aided by the owners, is as exasperating as it was predictable, as impressive as it is depressing. This didn’t damage him. It has emboldened him. It will never be about justice, about him doing what it right. His reign as commissioner will continue to be about portraying the image of leadership, all the while having a set of double-standards that he will utilize at his discretion, depending upon who is involved and how it will play in the court of public opinion.
Our knowledge of his arbitrary incompetence has grown, and yet his hubris does not shrink. He’s waiting for us to forget the former so he can continue to wield the latter, like the judge this make-believe lawyer pretends to be.
I genuinely hope Bill Simmons reconsiders his comment from the end of that podcast. I hope he isn’t done shaking his fist in genuine anger about this. His voice has impact, and he has the forums and the clout to give other voices impact. Against Goodell, master of the waiting game if nothing else, it’s all we can do.