What Roger Goodell Could Have Learned From Machiavelli

As we all know, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been under much scrutiny recently for his controversial decision surrounding Ray Rice’s domestic abuse case and other league-wide issues. One ill-advised choice has destroyed Goodell’s reputation amongst fans, players, and analysts. Over 70% of fans think he should be fired or are unsure if he should remain commissioner. Unfortunately for Goodell, he could have avoided this disapproval by taking note of an important Machiavellian concept.

In chapter 16 of The Prince, Machiavelli discusses liberality and how being overly generous could ultimately force a leader to become despised. He explains that if a prince is spending freely, while not taxing a lot, people will at first admire his generosity. However, his liberality will eventually force him to raise taxes and infuriate his people. People obviously won’t want to pay increased taxes especially when they weren’t expecting this increase based on the leader’s original policies. On the contrary, if a leader starts out harsh and taxes more, he will at first be considered mean. However, when the people realize the higher taxing allows the leader to increase spending and provide for his people, they will come to respect that leader.

NFL Commissioner trying to explain the original punishment and how he messed up (http://verysmartbrothas.com/why-roger-goodell-is-not-getting-fired-any-time-soon/)

NFL Commissioner trying to explain the original punishment and how he messed up. (http://verysmartbrothas.com/why-roger-goodell-is-not-getting-fired-any-time-soon/)

Machiavelli is essentially saying that there is a difference between being harsh and being hated. Not being mean enough can sometimes be the reason for one’s downfall, but beginning strict will earn one respect. This concept applies to Roger Goodell’s situation. Goodell originally suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for two games for beating his fiancee this past offseason. Goodell must have known that ONLY TWO GAMES for domestic violence was way too kind, especially considering Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon was, at the time, suspended the entire season for smoking weed multiple times. Of course, when the horrifying video evidence of Rice beating his fiancée came out, Goodell came down as hard as he could, suspending Rice from the NFL indefinitely.

Goodell’s situation is different than the one Machiavelli describes in that it is not his decision to be more severe that pisses off the people. In fact, the people supported his harsh decision. What ticked them off is that Goodell had such horrible judgment in the first place by being so light on Rice. Hypothetically, If Goodell had originally suspended Rice indefinitely and Rice was later found innocent, removing his suspension would have gone over much easier. The lesson Goodell should have learned from Machiavelli is that it is better to start out too strict than too generous because often times starting charitable can lead to becoming hated, while starting harsh and easing up earns one respect.

Browns receiver Josh Gordon shown trying to catch weed instead of a football. (http://www.thenug.com/galleries/josh-gordon-uses-secondhand-smoke-defense-nfl-not-buying-it)

Browns receiver Josh Gordon shown trying to catch weed instead of a football. (http://www.thenug.com/galleries/josh-gordon-uses-secondhand-smoke-defense-nfl-not-buying-it)

Following the Ray Rice incident, the commissioner began to get heat for suspending Josh Gordon an entire season for smoking weed, which is much less serious than Rice’s actions. Despite it being Gordon’s third offense, Goodell did reconsider the suspension, and eventually lowered it to 10 games. Goodell changing his policies in both the Gordon and Rice cases forced me to think about the conflict between ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility introduced by Max Weber in his “Politics as a Vocation” speech. In both cases, Goodell employs ethics of responsibility in changing his policies in an attempt to save his declining reputation. While these decisions to change were the right ones given his situation, they make me question his policies to begin with. It makes me uneasy to think that both of these policies were bad enough that they needed to be altered. Although I was relieved that Goodell’s ethics of responsibility lead him to the right decision, I would have liked to see better policies originally in place so he could have some ethics of conviction and show fans that he is a confident and capable leader.

-Aaron Simon


3 thoughts on “What Roger Goodell Could Have Learned From Machiavelli

  1. I liked how you didn’t just compare the Roger Goodell situation to one theme of the course in Machiavelli, but you tied it into something else, with Max Weber. I think the point about ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility is a great one, because Goodell was almost too flexible with his handling of the Ray Rice situation. I agree with what you said in that he should have laid down a harsher penalty to Rice at first, rather than the two game suspension. Now, he faces potentially breaking the NFL and NFL players agreement that says you can’t have double jeopardy, or a different punishment for the same crime. If Goodell has been stronger with his initial punishment, and not worried so much about what his owners thought, this whole mess would have been a little cleaner.


  2. Aaron,

    The comparisons you make here are very interesting, and the lessons Goodell could have learned from Machiavelli are very pertinent in this case. However, there is one glaring point that I think was not addressed.

    Before the Rice situation, Goodell had been known as a tough disciplinarian, and many people criticized him for being too harsh on players. Goodell continually fined and suspended players (most notably James Harrison of the Steelers and Bengals) for multiple hard, borderline dirty hits. Many people thought this was unfair and that Goodell was being too harsh, and many people hated him because of this. Obviously, domestic violence is a totally different situation, and being very harsh here could have gotten a great response (like the response Adam Silver got when he banned Donald Sterling for life). However, in Machiavelli’s terms, if Goodell started “too harsh”, shouldn’t he have been liked at some point? That really never happened.

    With that said, this was one of the better blogs I have read. You are very thorough throughout and provide great and insightful analysis. Good job!

    -Korey Burdman


  3. The comparison you draw between Commissioner Goodell’s treatment of the Ray Rice situation and chapter 16 of The Prince are extremely compelling. The situation of being too kind with his initial punishment is perfectly analogous to the situation of a Prince lowering taxes at the beginning of his reign. Another situation you could have examined was the treatment of Colts owner Jim Irsay’s DUI charge, as in this situation Goodell acted both overly generously and indecisively, abstaining from handing down punishment for far too long. In this situation, his kindness was treated with anger from the fans and players alike, as he displayed extreme allegiance to the NFL’s nobles (owners). I also agree with your comment about Goodell’s ethics of responsibility and conviction. While ultimately it is good that he used is ethics of responsibility to correct his errant judgement, it is rather disconcerting that his original principals were so misguided. Goodell knew that Rice was a major star, and that his suspension would damage the league image, and he valued this greater than true justice.


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