The Ray Rice controversy was inevitable; not that Rice would knock his wife unconscious or drag her out of an elevator by her hair, nor that Rice would be involved at all. Rather, the moment Roger Goodell instituted the NFL's bolstered personal conduct policy in April of 2007 -- while suspending Pacman Jones for one year and the late Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry for eight games -- he declared the NFL a moral entity.
After several years of playing the stern lawman, Goodell has come under considerable fire for being just the opposite. In an ironic twist, many are now yearning for Goodell's overzealous punishments, once the subject of moral criticism itself. In Rice's case, The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn was one of many voices lambasting the NFL for not sending a strong enough message "either to its players or the rest of the world." He cites government initiatives to curb domestic violence, but laments "there are some things that government can't do, at least on its own, and one of those things is changing attitudes." He is far from alone in believing the NFL has a "special responsibility to act."
Among the personal conduct policy's many stated aims, affecting social issues is not one of them. Goodell unveiled the policy in response to an onslaught of malfeasance both within and outside legal jurisprudence. There was the aforementioned Jones and Henry affairs, as well as Tank Johnson's litany of gun-related infractions. Bengals players in particular were constantly getting arrested. The policy itself describes its aim as reducing conduct that undermines "the integrity and public confidence in the National Football League." That is, the personal conduct policy is explicitly about repairing the NFL's image.
The league's major foray into punishing non-criminal conduct began in 2010, when Goodell suspended Ben Roethlisberger six games (later reduced to four) for sexual assault allegations and fined Brett Favre $50,000 for unwanted sexting, neither of which resulted in any criminal charges. These punishments accounted for the gap between our legal system and broader ethical standards. When Goodell did this, he created a common currency (games suspended, money fined) for moral infractions and set a precedent for future punishments. The Rice backlash is largely a disagreement in moral conversion rates.
People are criticizing the NFL for making the same mistake as many Americans and failing to acknowledge the damage and scale of a prevalent issue. That's fair enough; there's a lot to be said for the power of cultural trendsetters to lead crusades against societal ills. The NFL in particular has undeniable power in shaping public debate, perhaps just as much as any other American entity. For better or worse, Michael Vick's cruelty shed tremendous light on the dogfighting underworld. Richie Incognito's viciousness made workplace bullying a topic of discussion in one of the only developed countries yet to protect employees from such behavior. It's completely understandable why people would look to the NFL's punishment to facilitate an attitude shift against domestic violence. But that's not what the personal conduct policy is for. This is a master class on how chickens become eggs: The NFL's personal conduct policy, initially created to reflect our values, is now being asked to reshape them.
This is of course exactly what the NFL wants. The personal conduct policy is a tremendously successful marketing effort which has resulted in people equating the NFL and Goodell himself with justice. Regardless of whether the NFL actually has the power to shift societal views, people believe it does, which puts it in rarified territory. It makes the NFL not just a sports league, but a cultural institution.
The massive problem is in the details of how the personal conduct policy works. When Goodell suspended Roethlisberger in 2010, Andrew Brandt (then of the National Football Post) described the policy as "an edict on morality and values on which the league espouses and promotes in its message and marketing." Critically, Brandt glosses over whose morality the policy reflects: It is Goodell's, and Roger Goodell is a lawyer, marketer, biased dictator and representative of 32 wealthy men, several with their own histories of extremely dubious moral fiber. Goodell operates under a single edict: Make those 32 rich men richer, which is a non-moral dictate that becomes anti-moral when he is given power to take money away from his employees without a criminal offense nor due process.
Given the NFL's concern with its image, one could argue that public pressure equates to profit and forces Goodell to make the "right" choice. But this doesn't take into account some basic practicalities -- the hearings, evidence and decisions all occur in secret, absent public opinion -- nor the litany of evidence that, given a short-term tension between public pressure and profit, the NFL almost always chooses profit.
Still, those asking the NFL to do more with Ray Rice and the domestic violence issue aren't just asking the NFL to change -- they're asking all of us to change. Instead of shouting into the void, they're shouting at the NFL's Park Avenue office, issuing a very specific demand. In doing so, they're giving the NFL exactly what it wants: a prominent seat at our country's moral debates.
Let's not forget who we're giving this seat to: Yes, that NFL, the one that willfully buried evidence its employees were giving each other irreversible, life threatening brain damage. Yes, that NFL, the one that is still trying to screw over its brain-damaged former employees to save money. Yes, that NFL, the one that systematically treated its players like thoroughbreds, getting them addicted to dangerous painkillers. Yes, that NFL is the one Cohn and others are asking to make a moral calculus. Is it any surprise we're unhappy with the answers?