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Question of ‘what’ and ‘when’ will haunt Goodell

What did Dick Hirsch know and when did he know it? It is unlikely any investigative agency or other public body will ever be asking that question about me. It is reserved for those celebrated personalities who find themselves the subject of official curiosity. It is a bad omen—usually a precursor of change, often an investigation resulting in resignation or indictment.

That question came into common usage in the early 1970s. It was related to President Richard Nixon and the inquiries surrounding the Watergate burglary. It eventually became clear that the president knew about the crime and the events that followed earlier than he claimed.

The case demonstrated that the attempt to conceal any crime—the coverup—can actually be more damning than the incident itself. Shamed and dishonored, facing impeachment, Nixon resigned in August 1974. Over the years that question has been propounded in a number of public arenas, and it will forever be primarily associated with Nixon and the historical Watergate affair.

Now, however, it has boiled to the surface once again in regard to Commissioner Roger Goodell of the National Football League. It involves the career of Ray Rice, the star running back of the Baltimore Ravens. Rice punched his then fiancee (who is now his wife) in the face, beating her unconscious. The action was recorded by surveillance cameras.

You no doubt are familiar with the published facts of the case. The NFL has a professional staff of investigators; could they possibly have failed to uncover the facts of the Rice case? Goodell initially punished the Ravens star with a suspension, restricting him from playing in the first two games of the season. It was regarded as a limp response to an incident that qualified as felonious.

There was an angry response, especially from women’s groups. The NFL dithered, Goodell apologized, but eventually the punishment became far more severe. Rice was fired by the Ravens and permanently suspended by the NFL.

You must recognize that kings don’t apologize. Goodell is more than a public figure dwelling on the sports page. He is a monarch, with virtual absolute authority. In an example of his uncontrolled power, he had the audacity to demand that Erie County replace the stadium that had just been upgraded at a cost of $130 million. I only heard one voice in opposition, County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

The New York Times reported that Goodell’s annual compensation in 2012 totaled $44.2 million. Now he is a troubled official, responsible only to the franchise owners. The league’s credibility has been damaged by the handling of the Rice case and women’s groups are not alone in suggesting it is time for him to resign. Some national sports commentators who once sought to curry Goodell’s favor are suggesting his time has passed. Just as Ray Rice has been rejected, Goodell may be permanently sidelined.

Whether he stays or goes doesn’t matter. Whatever the outcome is, the Goodell name and his career as commissioner have been stained. A permanent blotch that cannot be obscured or forgotten is the result. No cosmetic can conceal it.

It is impossible to predict what his billionaire bosses will conclude is the best strategy to protect the league and their investments. But when Roger Goodell dies sometime in the future, you can be certain of this: The lead paragraph in his obituary will include the saga of the star player’s wife and Goodell’s role, stressing what the commissioner knew and when he knew it.

As for what I knew and when I knew it, I’ll save that for another time. But it won’t make headlines.

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.

9/19/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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