The National Organization for Women (NOW) has turned up the heat on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Just hours after Goodell said his job wasn’t in jeopardy, NOW president Terry O'Neill called on the commissioner to resign. “The NFL has lost its way,” she said in a statement. “It doesn't have a Ray Rice problem; it has a violence against women problem. ... The only workable solution is for Roger Goodell to resign.”
The NFL has mishandled the situation from the beginning. There’s no doubt about that. But should Goodell lose his job over it? If you ask ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith, the answer is obvious: No. Smith was on air Wednesday morning when O'Neill released her statement and he didn’t hold back:
I'm sorry, I think this woman [O'Neill] is off her rocker. I think she's lost her mind. That's right, I said it. This is the most ridiculous nonsense I've ever heard in my life. Roger Goodell deserves to lose his job? Why are you acting like he's Ray Rice? Roger Goodell didn't hit Janay Palmer Rice. He hasn't hit any women. And by the way, the last time I checked, Skip, why are we talking about the NFL as if it's some cesspool for domestic violence? There's a few cases. It's being dealt with.
This isn’t the first time Smith has made a controversial statement. In July, ESPN suspended him for arguing that women should make sure not to provoke men into violence. (Smith later apologized for that.) But does he have a point here? Is it crazy to call for Goodell’s resignation?
No. As the commissioner of the NFL, Goodell bears responsibility for the culture of his league—a culture has been far too apathetic towards domestic violence. These aren’t isolated incidents either. Benjamin Morris, of FiveThirtyEight, compared the arrest rates of NFL players to those of all men aged 25–29. Given their affluence, Morris notes, football players should have much lower arrest rates. And that’s exactly what we see: NFL players are arrested about one-eighth as often as the average man. The rates vary when you start looking at specific crimes. NFL players are arrested for burglary at one-fiftieth the rate of the average man. For domestic violence, football players are still arrested at lower-than-average rates, but the disparity is less; football players are arrested for domestic violence about half as often as the average man. “Although this is still lower than the national average,” Morris writes, “it’s extremely high relative to expectations.”
And once you account for wealth, the NFL’s arrest rate for domestic violence is much worse. “Relative to the income level (top 1 percent) and poverty rate (0 percent) of NFL players, the domestic violence arrest rate is downright extraordinary,” Morris concludes.
NOW reports that during Goodell’s tenure as commissioner, there have been 56 instances of domestic violence. In response to those incidents, the NFL has suspended players for 13 games combined. Only 10 players were released from their teams. Carolina Panthers' player Greg Hardy, for instance, was convicted in July of choking his former girlfriend. Hardy had four tackles and a sack in Week 1 of the NFL season.
It’s hard not to fault Goodell here. The NFL has effectively minimized the seriousness of domestic violence through a longtime policy—official or not—of weak punishments. The commissioner is ultimately responsible for that message.
And yet, while Goodell deserves blame, I’m not fully convinced that he should step down. The important question now is who the best person is to fix this culture. It’s not clear, at least to me, that the answer isn’t Roger Goodell. After the NFL initially only suspended Rice for two games, Goodell admitted that the league had screwed up—a rarity in professional sports—and significantly stiffened the penalties for domestic abuse. When the video came out this week, the NFL quickly suspended Rice indefinitely. And Goodell seems to understand the magnitude of this problem: “One case is too many,” he told CBS Wednesday morning. “What we have to do is go back and say if we have one case, that's something we've got to address. If we have multiple cases, we have to change our training and our education to try and eliminate that issue. We're saying we have a problem.”
This is all assuming that the NFL hadn’t actually seen the in-elevator tape of the incident until Monday, as Goodell explicitly said on CBS Wednesday. The Associated Press is now reporting that law enforcement sent a copy of the tape to the NFL in April. The NFL immediately issued a denial. If it is the case that the NFL got the tape last spring, then Goodell is done.