The blistering, flabbergasting report by ESPN reporters Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham that dropped Tuesday morning is full of juicy details, about the extent of deception and outright cheating the New England Patriots were involved in during Spygate, about the NFL’s desire to cover up that cheating because of the power of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and about the league’s ham-fisted attempts to turn Deflategate into a “makeup call.” But the major takeaway is this: Roger Goodell is in big, big trouble.
It is important to remember, as another NFL season begins with yet another humiliating public relations scandal for the most profitable sports league on the planet, that Goodell has never worked anywhere else but the NFL. He took an internship right out of college, in 1982, and began to ingratiate himself, almost immediately, with the power mavens of the league: The wealthy owners. Goodell, because he has only ever been employed by the league, holds up the NFL as the last bastion of purity in a world gone mad. His mission seems to be to Protect the Shield against media, players, unions, doctors, whoever might ever challenge the total and absolute authority of the National Football League. But in “protecting” it, he has taken what should be the most profitable and bountiful period in the NFL’s history and put it directly in the crosshairs. It’s remarkable.
Look at the Spygate story. Basically, Goodell, a man who has prized his disciplinary authority over all else (something he prided himself on even before the Ray Rice/Adrian Peterson mess of last year), was handed a scandal on a silver platter. The Patriots, the league’s best team, with the most high-profile coach and the movie-star quarterback, turns out, according to the ESPN piece, to have not only been stealthily videotaping opposing team’s practices, but in fact, according to unnamed former employees, stealing their playbooks, including sheets that displayed the first 20 plays they would call in a particular game. Seriously! During “pregame warm-ups, a low-level Patriots employee would sneak into the visiting locker room and steal the play sheet, listing the first 20 or so scripted calls for the opposing team's offense. (The practice became so notorious that some coaches put out fake play sheets for the Patriots to swipe.)” That is a huge scandal! That makes what we thought we knew about Spygate look like tiddlywinks, makes the Cardinals-Astros hacking scandal look like an accidental Scantron error. Regardless of whether or not you believe that diminishes the Patriots’ success and their championships—and I’d personally argue it doesn’t—that is the very definition of cheating. This is what Goodell claimed he cared so much about. This is what he wanted to stamp out.
And how did he respond? According to Van Natta’s and Wickersham’s article, he slapped the Patriots on the wrist and ordered deputies to destroy the evidence. (Literally: NFL general counsel Jeff Pash physically stomped on some contraband Patriots tapes himself.) The reasoning? “Goodell didn't want anybody to know that his gold franchise had won Super Bowls by cheating,” an executive told the ESPN reporters. “If that gets out, that hurts your business.”
So that is one thing: A coverup, an embarrassment and a denial of a disciplinary issue that epitomized what Goodell claimed he was trying to protect the NFL from. But then, this year, in the “makeup” call, Goodell went nuclear on Brady and the Patriots with the Deflategate story, an issue of far less significance (and much, much less evidence), one that ended, as it was inevitably going to, with a judge handing him his hat and undoing the four-game suspension Goodell handed Brady. This has now blossomed into an even larger problem for Goodell. Because of his overreaching in the Brady situation, a federal judge has stuck down not just the Brady punishment, but potentially many other disciplinary edicts Goodell has tossed as thunderbolts from the mount. Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy, suspended four games for a domestic violence incident, has already said he’s talking to the Players Association about appealing his suspension the same way Brady did. By going so hard after such a dumb story like Deflategate, Goodell has cut his legs out from under him concerning the one issue he claimed to care about the most when he had Spygate sitting right there in front of him, a meatball right over the plate. This is like ignoring a criminal being caught redhanded murdering someone but later framing him for having a taillight out. Goodell couldn’t have possibly bungled all this any worse.
Even with the league thriving, it’s just going to get worse for Goodell. The Thursday night game that opens this season features Brady and those Patriots, which means the signature conversation topic will be this scandal and Goodell’s inability to stop making the situation worse. Later, he’ll be portrayed by Luke Wilson in Sony Pictures’ Concussion as a sinister owners’ lackey trying to hide the truth about his sports’ brutality. And even as the league makes more money than ever, and seems more popular than ever, he has become cast as the boorish empty suit who has taken the league from Paul Tagliabue and, despite the record profits (in large part because of changes in the media industry that Goodell had little to do with), turned it into a lightning rod for scandal and malfeasance. People love football. But they hate the NFL. This is Roger Goodell’s legacy. His beloved owners are awash in cash, but even with that, they are beginning to turn against him. The NFL, despite all its negative publicity, appears to be untouchable. But its commissioner is not. This is supposed to be a signature year for the NFL, with Super Bowl 50, with the 50-yard line painted gold at every stadium to commemorate the anniversary. The league can handle no more embarrassments. It is becoming clear that Goodell, the man who vowed to protect the league from such embarrassments, has become its largest one.