NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has been deservedly criticized for his light punishment of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for beating up his then-fiancee and current wife. But all sports commissioners have to please the owners who hire them and can fire them, and Goodell is no exception. I’m sure most, if not all, of the owners approved of his decision.
Most owners are rich old white men, and they have the prejudices of their generation. One of them is that women should be subservient, though more and more women are asserting themselves in professions, such as the law and medicine. Some run for office. I doubt many male sports owners are voting for them.
Another prejudice of older white men is that marijuana use can cause great damage. That information was advanced by the liquor and cigarette industries because they didn’t want competition from a product that can be grown in your back yard. I’m an older white man and I’ve never smoked marijuana. My vice of choice is wine. But I’ve known many who have used it with no ill effects.
Yet, because this prejudice remains in my generation, its use draws a four-game penalty in the NFL.
Meanwhile, steroid use in the NFL is ignored, though it’s been known for almost three decades. The term “’roid rage” was first ascribed to Bill Romanowski, a former linebacker for the 49ers and Raiders, somewhere around 1987.
It amuses me that so many sportswriters moralize about steroid use in baseball because they’re concerned about records, but ignore it in football, the sport where it can do the most damage. Apparently they don’t they see the connect between steroids and these wonderfully sculpted bodies that can also run faster than anybody should expect. When these bodies come in contact, they do great damage. Just look at all the injured 49ers. Do you think that’s a coincidence?
And while others were berating Goodell, Rice’s coach, John Harbaugh, praised Rice. As we know, the Harbaugh brothers are ubercompetitive, so that seems to be all that matters. Their sister married a coach but one who coaches basketball, a sport of skill, not one aimed at putting opponents in the hospital.
Catering to the prejudices of owners is not the only requirement for a commissioner. In fact, the primary one is making more money for them. Baseball owners love Bud Selig because he’s discovered new revenue streams for them, though, judged objectively, he has not been a great commissioner.
The NFL grew enormously under Pete Rozelle, so he is generally revered, especially since he brokered a peace with the AFL that ushered in an era of great prosperity.
Commissioners rarely make decisions based on the greater good. In fact, the only exception I remember is Happy Chandler, who allowed the Brooklyn Dodgers to sign Jackie Robinson, breaking the color line in baseball. His predecessor, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, had blocked Bill Veeck from buying the Philadelphia Phillies because Veeck planned to sign players from the Negro League.
Goodell is no innovator. He’s simply following the wishes of the owners. If you want to blame him, so do I. But first, we have to look at the owners.