Roger Goodell's imperious enforcement of the NFL's personal conduct policy made him a feared adversary of 300-pound linemen, established him as the most powerful — and best paid — commissioner in American sports and earned him the nickname "The Ginger Hammer."
Then he went easy on Ray Rice.
Now, Goodell is fending off critics (and trying to hold onto the paycheck that earned him $44 million last year), waiting for the investigation he commissioned to answer whether the league ignored facts in the domestic violence case or was simply unaware of them.
"Ain't no fun when the rabbit got the gun huh?" tweeted oft-fined former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who followed up by comparing his longtime nemesis to President Richard Nixon. "Let's just say you didn't know. So at best it's negligence. What fine/suspension/penalty would you make up for that?"
Although Goodell's stewardship has not been without controversy, the NFL had grown so strong during his eight-year tenure that it asked potential Super Bowl halftime acts to pay for the right to perform. His owners are happy, with $10 billion in annual revenues that he wants to grow to $25 billion by 2027; the Buffalo Bills — one of the least valuable teams in the league, according to Forbes — are due to be sold for $1.4 billion.
Goodell has said the league "didn't get it right" by initially suspending Rice for just two games and hired former FBI director Robert Mueller to figure out why. Here's what's next for some of the participants in the biggest crisis of Goodell's tenure:
What did he know and when did he know it? Goodell insists he did not see elevator video that shows Rice knocking his then-fiancee out cold. He insists that no one at the NFL has seen the elevator video, either. Not so fast: A law enforcement official told The Associated Press this week that a copy of the video was sent to a league executive, and the official played a confirmation voice mail to back it up.
Mueller's first task will be to figure out what happened to that video; if it made it to Goodell's desk; and if not, why not? The NFL's claims that it backed off when authorities refused to turn over the video seemed hollow to those who have been on the other end of the league's investigatory zeal. Several members of the New Orleans Saints, who were punished when Goodell found the team running a pay-to-injure bounty program, have thrown the commissioner's own words back at him: "Ignorance is not an excuse."
Rice can apply for reinstatement when he convinces Goodell that he is "addressing this issue." Whether there is a team that will sign him is another question, but players with talent — and Rice had four straight 1,000-yard seasons before last year — usually get second, third and fourth chances. (See Michael Vick, and Rice's Baltimore teammate Ray Lewis.) Rice can avoid prosecution and a criminal record by completing a pretrial intervention program, a resolution that prosecutors said they agreed to after consulting with his wife, Janay Rice.
Although the Ravens were content to let the league take the lead on Rice's discipline, that became untenable once the second videotape became public. They released him right before the league upped his suspension, and owner Steve Bisciotti wrote a public apology to the team's fans and business partners.
"We did not do all we should have done and no amount of explanation can remedy that," he wrote. After failing to obtain the second video and seeing it for the first time this week, Bisciotti called it "violent and horrifying." The team's brain trust gathered, and "The meeting was relatively short.
"The decision to let Ray Rice go was unanimous," he wrote. "Seeing that video changed everything. We should have seen it earlier. We should have pursued our own investigation more vigorously. We didn't and we were wrong."
Mueller's independence is already being questioned because of his role as a partner at the law firm WilmerHale, which has represented Washington owner Daniel Snyder and sent several of its lawyers to positions with NFL teams. The National Organization for Women, which has called for Goodell to resign, called the Mueller investigation "window dressing."
NOW is calling for Goodell's resignation. Members of Congress have demanded information. Players are taking pleasure in seeing their nemesis squirm. But NFL owners — Goodell's bosses — have supported him, and as long as they and the league's sponsors are willing to wait for Mueller to finish his work, the commissioner is safe.
If things change, the NFL constitution allows for the commissioner to be removed in case of a "crime involving moral turpitude," mental or physical incapacitation or failure to abide by the league's constitution or bylaws. The commissioner would be terminated if the executive committee — representatives from each of the 32 teams — decides by a three-fourths vote that such action is "detrimental to the best interests of the League."
That's the same hammer Goodell wields when he is punishing players.
Jimmy Golen covers sports and the law for The Associated Press.