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In recent days we've seen the best sportswriters in the land relentlessly climb the water spout. At the bottom of the spout is Ray Rice.
When the video surfaced last week—the one of the Baltimore Ravens star knocking his fiancée senseless in an elevator—the media brushed by Rice, barely bothering to give his sorry butt a boot. No thug in cleats is half as interesting or sinister as the pinstriped boss on high who pulls the strings. And this was NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who had originally suspended Rice for a trifling two games.
It was toward Goodell that the media relentlessly crept.
Jarrett Bell, USA Today: "In a statement, the NFL again reiterated that it was 'not aware of anyone in our office who possessed or saw the video before it was made public Monday.' But each time the NFL repeats its position, it's another blow to the credibility of how business is conducted at NFL headquarters under Goodell's watch. And it increases the heat on this commissioner like never before."
Juliet Macur, New York Times: "Did N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell see the video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice cold-cocking his fiancée in an Atlantic City elevator before that video appeared on the Internet on Monday? Did he know just how nauseating it is to see a man crumple a woman with a single, almost nonchalant blow before he penalized Rice with a spineless two-game suspension? Does it really matter if he did?"
Rick Telander, Sun-Times: "If [Goodell] didn't see the elevator footage before now, one of two things must be true: He is incompetent for ruling without having gleaned the facts. Or, two, he did see it, he's lying, and he didn't think much of the assault. In either case, his malfeasance is inexcusable."
The cry went out for Goodell's head. "You have already forfeited your privilege of resigning," said ESPN's Keith Olbermann, staring into the camera with an eye fierce enough to search out and destroy Goodell wherever he might be hiding, "because to restore the slightest credibility to the den of liars, CYA specialists, and investigators whose job it is to bury whatever they actually find, the owners of the NFL need to publicly and loudly fire you!"
The editorial page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune called for Goodell's job. In Cleveland, the Plain Dealer polled its editorial board and the only members who didn't believe Goodell needed to be tossed out immediately were the ones who felt a "thorough investigation" by the NFL into the way it handled the Ray Rice scandal should come first.
Calls for executives' heads aren't uncommon among sports media pundits, as enforcing moral codes is a core responsibility—along with demanding local team leaders do what it takes to field a winner. In this case something interesting seems to have happened. It occurred to the pundits that they were likely to get their wish: the NFL owners could easily soothe the baying pack by pushing Goodell off the back of the wagon.
But if Goodell were merely the owners' cats-paw—a scapegoat-to-be easily disposed of—ultimate responsibility lay further up the water spout. The media must resume the climb!
Joe Nocera laid out the revised dispensation in an op-ed in last Saturday's New York Times. "If you want to understand why Goodell's job is almost certainly safe, despite . . . the many calls for his ouster," wrote Nocera, "this is why: The only people who can fire him are the 32 N.F.L. owners—and they have zero interest in letting him go. After all, he makes them money. Currently, the N.F.L. takes in about $10 billion overall; Goodell has told the owners he wants to make it a $25 billion business by the year 2027. You can practically see their mouths watering at the prospect."
We can question Nocera's prediction—what's to stop the owners from telling each other "Smart guys like us can get to $25 billion without that pissant"?—but take his larger point: It's the owners' house and Goodell is a useful appliance in it, something that keeps the linen and skivvies looking spick-and-span.
Alan Schwarz covered a lot of the same ground in the Monday Times, explaining that the owners have calculated "that the profits are worth any setbacks that result from a crisis-management style that has been called everything from clumsy to, last week, conspiratorial." But Schwarz suggested that the Rice crisis is above and beyond and could turn out to be—where Goodell was concerned—one crisis too many.
The Times apparently doesn't intend to let this story go until everyone on staff has had a say, and that was Maureen Dowd weighing in on Sunday: "Owners shrug off moral turpitude because when they pay a lot of money for a player, they don't want him sitting out games, even if he's been accused of a crime."
Beyond the owners, is there anything further up the water spout for the media to advance on? Here's where things get tricky. If they wish, sportswriters and op-ed moralists alike can clamber past the owners and close in on the ultimate culprits—the ones who pay the owners handsomely to pay the commissioner handsomely not to overreact when the occasional girl friend is beaten to a pulp by a handsomely compensated thug.
The Times named names in another Monday article. One was the name of Sarah Krautkremer, interviewed outside MetLife Stadium before Sunday's New York Giants-Arizona Cardinals game, which she'd traveled from Florida to see. "Why put all our focus on this guy?" she said, meaning Rice. "Don't give him the publicity he's getting. It's disgusting." Kyle Gaynor, 12, had seen the Rice video. "It's a terrible thing that happened, but it happens sometimes," said Kyle as he headed into the stadium with his dad. And Rosalind Moore reminded the Times that "you can't judge everybody by somebody else's mistake. Life goes on," she said, "and we're going to the game now."
It's a quandary that journalists have never exactly known how to handle, and it's certainly not limited to scandals in the realm of professional sports. Try to get to the root of, say, political corruption in Chicago, or congressional paralysis in Washington, D.C., and the trail winds ultimately to none other than you and me.
As the salt of the earth, we're pretty much beyond criticism.
So down the water spout the pundits tumble, though it won't be long before they're inching their way up again.