Roger Goodell knew he was wrong, and he knew it quickly.
The NFL commissioner made a bold and admirable move on Thursday, writing a lengthy letter to all 32 league owners saying, "I didn't get it right" regarding "a recent incident of domestic violence." Presumably, he was referring to the suspension of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who received only two games for alleged domestic violence.
"Lesson learned," one league executive told Yahoo Sports only days after Goodell made his decision on Rice that triggered such a public backlash.
That lesson – domestic violence is intolerable under any circumstances and regardless of ensuing remorse – was delivered to Goodell in part by a barrage of social media. The outcry was not strongest on rights-holding television networks; it was strongest on Facebook and Twitter. It was constant and vitriolic. And it showed a new truth: all sports bosses are now held accountable by the public (including athletes on social media) in an unprecedented way.
"My disciplinary decision," Goodell wrote, "led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values."
Notice he wrote "the public." Not the media. Not the NFL Players Association.
This was truly a public shaming, delivered 140 characters at a time.
The NFL has cultivated relationships with domestic violence groups. The league's department of player engagement has worked hard to bolster the tie between families and football. There are resources for players and their families to use in times of private turmoil, including a 24-hour toll free helpline. But Goodell's too-soft suspension threatened to undo a lot of that good work and goodwill. The commissioner and his league were suddenly viewed as brutal and uncaring. Social media had made Goodell into a monster, and he clearly felt a need to combat the tide that had started to drown him. He went a long way toward accomplishing that with his letter, but it's instructive that most fans read the letter on social media.
This is not the first time this has happened this year. The outrage about Donald Sterling's racist rant about African-Americans was immediate and overwhelming. It did not abate over hours or days. And when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver famously decided to ban the former Clippers owner "for life," his words were met with online celebration. Although Silver was only days into his role he tacitly apologized for ignoring Sterling's racism for too long. Goodell, similarly, publicly acknowledged the lapses of his office by promising a lifetime ban for second-time domestic violence offenders.
This is significant and drastic. Lifetime bans are largely unheard of in major pro sports, aside from Pete Rose and Joe Jackson. Now we have had one lifetime ban, and another threat of a lifetime ban, in the same few months.
In these two cases, the decisions are warranted. Sterling's behavior was unbecoming of an owner (or anyone else for that matter), and any two-time domestic violence offender is also not fit to play in the NFL. The commissioners were both transparent in a refreshing way. But that transparency has its risks, too.
Social media is instant and often a platform for embarrassing overreaction. It's a mob scene. We saw that this week when USC star Josh Shaw was first feted for saving his nephew's life and then lambasted for making up a story. Anyone who greeted the heroic tale with caution would have been ridiculed in the echo chamber. Anyone who defended Shaw in the aftermath also met negativity. Reaction on social media is so uniform, so collective, that it's easy to mistake anger for real thought. It's not like anyone ever tweets, "Let's sleep on it and discuss tomorrow."
The same holds true for this week's Josh Gordon suspension. Many on social media were apoplectic that Gordon got 16 games for substance abuse violations when Rice got only two for his incident. But the two decisions are in completely different parts of the NFL's rulebook. Rice broke a conduct code; Gordon abused drugs. Rice was a first-time offender; Gordon had multiple crimes. There's a reason for the disparity in punishment, and that doesn't get communicated well (or at all) in the hot-take world we live in.
It is part of Goodell's job now to acknowledge fan sentiment and educate it. "Collective bargaining" makes most fans zone out, but it underpins why lifetime bans are so rare – and may not hold up even under the commissioner's well-meaning new rule. Instead of making decisions that seem arbitrary and even callous, Goodell must give more frequent explanation of how long-held rules and labor negotiations have informed his choices. There's a reason the U.S. Congress is so poorly regarded in this country: most Americans are impatient for change and don't understand why law is so slow. Now that fans are so in tune with the goings-on of the NFL, on and off the field, Goodell must avoid becoming hated like Congress and avoid giving fans the sense that his decisions are made in a lawless vacuum.
One example: Both fans and players are upset about how and why flags are thrown for certain hits, and unclear about how fines and punishments are doled out. Both fans and players are upset about the rash of penalties, and worried that the foul-fest will spill over into a slog of a regular season. Recently, NFL vice president of operations Troy Vincent tweeted a Facebook post with visual explanations of how on-field violations are reviewed. His post didn't exactly go viral, but it's easy to point out if and when there's outcry in Week 1 (or 2 or 3 or 17). There's a reason why rules are rules, and that reason is laid out where fans can access it: on social media.
Goodell, like Silver before him, heard the backlash over a terrible wrong and he responded. He faced the public directly after the public verbally defaced his "shield." He, like Silver, deserves great credit for being forthcoming and somewhat humble. But he's still beholden to the owners, to the rules, to the history of the sport, and to the collective bargaining agreement with the union. He knows this. But in the social media age, one of the greatest difficulties of a major sports commissioner is to know when to heed public outcry, and when to log off.