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In defense of Roger Goodell

By Lanny J. Davis
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lanny Davis: Roger Goodell mishandled the Ray Rice case
  • He says the NFL commissioner has followed the right course in responding to crisis
  • Davis: Give the investigation time to play out before deciding Goodell's fate

Editor's note: Lanny Davis, a Washington attorney and former special counsel to President Clinton, specializes in legal crisis management. He is executive vice president of Levick Communications and the author of "Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life" (Simon and Schuster/Threshold, 2014). He represented the Washington Redskins on matters including the controversy over the team's name until January; he has not represented the NFL or Roger Goodell. The opinions in this commentary are those of Lanny Davis.

(CNN) -- Is there any way to ... well ... defend Roger Goodell?

Well, yes.

When everyone is piling on, it's time to take a breath and say: We need more facts, less reliance on media reports based on anonymous sources and over-heated pundits who are too ready to rush to judgment.

Lanny Davis
Lanny Davis

As I said on CNN's Michael Smerconish show on Saturday morning, of course Commissioner Goodell made a huge mistake in his decision to give Ravens running back Ray Rice only a two-game suspension after seeing the videotape of Rice dragging his then-girlfriend, Janay Palmer, unconscious, with apparent indifference, out of an Atlantic City casino elevator on February 15.

Opinion: Why Goodell must go

The public uproar that followed the announcement of Rice's suspension took time, too much time, to register with Goodell. A month later Goodell realized he had made a terrible mistake, sending a wrong message that domestic violence by NFL players was not all that serious and, thus, putting his own professional reputation and the NFL brand at risk.

But then he turned in the right direction, following the three basic rules of crisis management, whether in business, politics, or life.

First, he acknowledged that he made a mistake and took personal responsibility. He showed that he understood, albeit belatedly, how serious male violence against women is. In his August 28 letter to all NFL owners, Goodell wrote: "I didn't get it right. Simply put, we have to do better."

In an accompanying memorandum that would be distributed to all personnel in the NFL, he wrote, in bold-faced dark letters, the following:

"Domestic violence and sexual assault are wrong. They are illegal. They are never acceptable and have no place in the NFL under any circumstances."

Voices of domestic violence

Fmr. NFL player doubts Goodell's claims
ESPN host: No evidence yet Goodell is lying

Second, he laid out a detailed forward-looking mandatory education and training program to implement this policy. Most important, he announced far more severe penalties than before, effective immediately for violations of this bold-faced policy: 1) at least six game suspensions for the first violation, with heavier penalties if facts show more serious offenses, such as violence involving a weapon, choking, repeated striking, against a pregnant woman or in the presence of a child; and 2) a second offense will result in "banishment" from the NFL. That's right, banishment -- with no assumption that a petition for reinstatement will ever be accepted.

The third rule is to authorize an independent investigation to answer all the questions and verify the facts. And that is exactly what happened. Of course the emphasis is on the word "independent."

Two owners, John Mara of the New York Giants and Art Rooney II of the Pittsburgh Steelers, both of whom are attorneys, appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller III to conduct the investigation of how Goodell and the NFL headquarters handled the Rice matter.

In their public statement, Mara and Rooney asked Mueller to address specific questions raised in the media, such as "what efforts were made by league staff to obtain the video of what took place inside the elevator and to determine whether, in fact, the video was ever delivered to someone at the league office and if so what happened to the video after it was delivered."

Mara and Rooney publicly guaranteed that Mueller will have full access to all information and all individuals. They have committed in advance to make the report public. It is safe to assume that anyone who refuses to cooperate with Mueller will be out.

I have read about doubts about Mueller's objectivity because he comes from a large law firm that has ties to the NFL. My response: Nonsense. Robert Mueller is a former United States attorney, senior U.S. Justice Department official, and one of the most respected FBI directors in history.

Opinion: Curb Goodell's power over discipline

Washington is a tough town. I don't know of a single person in DC who knows Mueller who doesn't regard him as "untouchable" -- a modern-day Eliot Ness, tough with the highest level of integrity.

If Mueller finds that Roger Goodell lied about not seeing the second videotape or about what he was told by Ray Rice on July 16 when they met behind closed doors, Goodell will no longer be NFL commissioner. And Goodell knows that.

So while Commissioner Goodell made some serious mistakes and dug himself and the NFL into a deep hole, he did a pretty good job of crisis management, especially conveying once and for all how seriously the NFL views domestic violence.

Now after all the media and pundit frenzy, it is up to all of us to take a breath and wait for Mr. Mueller to complete his work -- and to let proven, verified facts speak louder and more persuasively than innuendo and anonymous sources.

If only we could do that.

Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Ray Rice's football position. He is a running back.

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