NFL Commissioner Goodell offers apologies but few specifics

Mark Maske (c) 2014, The Washington Post. In an apologetic news conference during which he faced often skeptical questioning, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted Friday that the league’s current personal conduct policies had failed and promised to make changes, the specifics of which remain unclear.

Facing criticism extending from corporate sponsors to the White House, Goodell said the league’s response in the wake of recent legal troubles involving players Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy had been inadequate and that it will work with its players’ union and outside experts to implement improved protocols.

Speaking in New York for close to 45 minutes in his first public comments since a televised interview with CBS last week, Goodell, who until the events of the past few weeks had been regarded as virtually omnipotent within his sport, said he won’t resign and believes he has the ongoing support of the owners of the 32 NFL franchises.

“I’m not satisfied with the way we handled it from the get-go. . . . I made a mistake,” Goodell said. “I’m not satisfied with the process that we went through. I’m not satisfied with the conclusions. . . . I let myself down. I let everybody else down, and for that, I’m sorry, as I mentioned earlier. But that’s what we’re going to correct, and that’s what we’re going to fix.”

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Goodell divulged virtually no details of the handling of the Rice case, for which the league was criticized both for its initial discipline and for the thoroughness of its investigation. The league initially suspended Rice for two games after he faced domestic abuse charges for a February incident in Atlantic City. But after released video showing Rice striking Janay Palmer, then his fiancee and now his wife, in a hotel elevator, the Baltimore Ravens released him and his suspension was made indefinite. In the aftermath, officials from both the team and the league denied seeing the video before it was published on the website.

The commissioner also provided few specifics about what will be done to the personal conduct policy to provide an improved mechanism by which NFL officials can deal with future player misdeeds. He repeatedly vowed that he will do better in the future to address such matters.

The NFL has come under increasing pressure from prominent sponsors and members of Congress over its handling of personal misconduct cases involving its players.

On Friday, Procter & Gamble canceled a major deal with the league that was timed to coincide with Breast Cancer Awareness month in October. Earlier this week, Anheuser-Busch issued a statement saying it was “disappointed and increasingly concerned” about the spate of domestic violence and misconduct incidents, while NFL sponsors Marriott, Pepsi and FedEx have said they were monitoring the league’s response.

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The White House also weighed in Friday, with a senior administration official telling reporters that the revelations were “really deeply troubling.”

“The NFL has an obligation not only to their fans but to the American people to properly discipline anyone involved in domestic violence or child abuse and more broadly, gain control of the situation,” said the official, who spoke at a background briefing that focused on a new campaign aimed at curbing sexual assaults on college campuses. “Many of these professional athletes are marketed as role models to young people and so their behavior does have the potential to influence these young people, and it’s one of the many reasons it’s important that the league get a handle on it and have a zero tolerance.”

Goodell said he will meet next week with players’ union chief DeMaurice Smith and accept suggestions from an array of people within the sport as well as outside advisers. He said he is open to reducing his power in the area of player conduct if it is determined that will help. He also said he will form a conduct committee to review rules going forward.

“Everything is on the table. . . . We can’t continue to operate like this,” Goodell said.

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The union did not immediately respond to a request to comment. Goodell’s news conference Friday did little to dissuade some of the league’s harshest critics. The National Organization for Women reiterated its stance that “Goodell must go.” The organization’s president, Terry O’Neill, said in a written statement that Goodell “today did nothing to increase confidence in his ability to lead the NFL out of its morass.”

Nita Chaudhary, co-founder of the women’s rights group UltraViolet, said in a written statement: “This press circus did nothing to change Goodell’s long history of inaction on and blatant mishandling of domestic violence in the NFL.”

Goodell seemed to do better with one group: the owners. A front-office executive with one NFL franchise who said he was speaking on the owner of his team’s behalf said: “The commissioner showed great leadership today.”

People with knowledge of owners’ views have said the owners support Goodell and would consider ousting him only if the investigation of the league’s handling of the Rice case, performed by former FBI director Robert Mueller III, finds Goodell guilty of willful and egregious misconduct.

“I believe I have the support of the owners,” Goodell said Friday. “That has been clear to me. They obviously expect us to do a better job. . . . I don’t like to let down anybody.”

The NFL announced it will partner with the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Goodell wrote in a memo to the clubs Thursday that all league and team personnel will participate in educational sessions on domestic violence and sexual assault starting within a month. The NFL previously added advisers on domestic violence issues.

Washington Post staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.