Like many others, I’ve been watching the rapidly unraveling developments relating to Ray Rice, Roger Goodell, the NFL, and the media over the past few days. I’m not going to rehash everything that’s happened, because the story keeps getting added to seemingly by the hour. But I do want to get some of the puzzlement I’m experiencing down on paper (or, at least, the blog form of paper).

What’s going on here? Why did Roger Goodell endanger his job and the NFL’s widespread popularity on such an open-and-shut case?

What is it about Ray Rice that caused Goodell and the NFL machinery to protect him to this degree? Rice is a known commodity in the league but he’s by no means a superstar. He’s an aging running back whose production fell off a shelf last year. He plays in a middling media market. He’s not an advertising icon, like Manning or Brady or even Larry Fitzgerald. He’s not a prominent NFL spokesperson. It seems strange that the NFL went to these lengths in the first place to protect Rice, when they’ve suspended players of equivalent prominence on far less serious matters in the past.

I don’t think anyone, except unshakable fans and/or reporters who rely on the NFL’s largesse for professional survival, really believes that the league didn’t view the elevator footage containing the punches. Maybe one could argue that Goodell has deniability in relation to whether he viewed the tape, but for a man who has positioned himself as the Captain McCluskey of the league over the last five years, it seems inconceivable that he didn’t watch the footage before his meeting with Rice in June.

If Goodell didn’t watch the footage before the meeting with Rice, then why not? Because the league was trying to maintain plausible deniability by relying solely on the written police report? That still makes no sense, especially for a league as paranoid as the NFL. Even if they were trying to maintain that plausible deniability, they would’ve known to consume all the available evidence so that they could properly prepare PR responses for possible blowback.

The reaction that occurred after the tape was seen is exactly what the NFL should have anticipated. Yet they didn’t. They seemed to be caught completely flat-footed by it, to the point that the Ravens managed to cut Ray Rice before Goodell could announce his indefinite suspension. Surely the NFL, in the era of Wikileaks, had to know that the video was going to come out. And even if Goodell is telling the truth (*unlikely) and Rice’s version of the story was cloudy, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what the video likely contained.

I’m confused by the sloppiness with which the NFL has handled this. Even in the aftermath of the suspension, a series of high-profile mistakes have further impeached Goodell’s (and the NFL’s) credibility, including:

  • Hanging their supposedly objective media assets out to try by claiming that they’d seen the tape over the summer, then forcing those reporters to publicly embarrass themselves by backtracking on a story they likely knew was true
  • Claiming that the NFL requested the tape but never received it, and then having an AP report directly refute that statement
  • Claiming that Rice’s statement to Goodell was unclear, only to have witnesses refute THAT claim
  • Having NFL owners, in their zeal to protect Goodell, engage in everything from public victim-shaming to accusing professional reporters of misconduct

The nuts and bolts of these individual items are all interesting, but the main questions remain unanswered.

Why was Ray Rice worth all of this?

Why was it so difficult to just suspend him for 6 or 8 games, make a strong moral stand on domestic violence, and then walk away knowing that when the video eventually leaked, it would justify that action?

Why would Goodell allow himself to make public statements after the video came out that are so easily impeachable by witnesses and law enforcement reports?

Why were (and are) the Ravens and the NFL on almost completely different pages on this issue?

Even if the answer to all of those questions is “Goodell and the NFL are bulletproof, this will wash over eventually”, it still begs the question of why they would put themselves in a position to be raked over the coals over an incident as indisputable as this, involving a player of marginal importance.