The biggest sports scandal of 2014 didn’t matter

December 30, 2014, 6:11 PM UTC
NFL Commissioner Goodell Discuss 2014 Super Bowl Plans
(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Photograph by Mario Tama—Getty Images

Make no mistake: 2014 was a bad, bad year for the National Football League.

What began as a single piece of video footage involving a single player ballooned into an all-out crisis for the league and particularly for its all-powerful commissioner, Roger Goodell. Fans and commentators called for Goodell to resign; journalists wrote about the NFL’s “women problem,” and the inevitable wave of sports think-pieces rolled on for months.

But the NFL Playoffs begin next week. Roger Goodell still runs the league. And in the end, none of it really mattered very much.

Here’s a broad timeline of what happened, if you somehow, mercifully, missed it: in February, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, were both arrested and charged with assault after an altercation at the Revel Casino in Atlantic City. A few days later, video footage emerged that showed Rice dragging Palmer’s unconscious body out of the elevator. It took until July for the NFL to issue its punishment: a two-day suspension for Rice, a star player. The league faced criticism for its leniency. But in September, the floodgates truly opened after TMZ leaked full video of the elevator incident, which showed Rice quite forcefully punching his fiancée in the face, knocking her out.

In August, before the leaked footage emerged, Goodell had acknowledged, “I didn’t get it right.” He announced a new domestic violence policy for the league: a six-game suspension for the first offense, a lifetime ban for the second. The subsequent footage showed that he really didn’t get it right. The NFL swiftly suspended Rice indefinitely, an effort that backfired in the court of public opinion. Rather than demonstrate a strong stance against domestic violence, it looked like a clumsy, hasty attempt at public relations. And it raised an important question: What did the NFL think had happened in that elevator in the first place? As the case unfolded, Roger Goodell managed to become more of a villain than Ray Rice, the actual perpetrator of the heinous act.

Just three days after the Rice footage leaked, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted for child abuse. Though the crime was a different form of domestic abuse—a father hitting his child, as opposed to a man hitting a woman—the two men became the embodiment of every criticism of the league, fair or not: that it couldn’t control its players off the field; that it employed thugs; that it condoned the mistreatment of women. Rice’s saga also led to renewed attention on other existing domestic abuse cases against Ray McDonald, a defensive end for the San Francisco 49ers, and Greg Hardy, a defensive end for the Carolina Panthers. As host Maggie Gray said on Sports Illustrated‘s live web show SI Now on September 19, “The past two weeks have been arguably the ugliest in the history of the NFL.” In an poll of whether Goodell should keep his job, only 28 percent of fans said yes. ESPN’s Keith Olbermann called Goodell an “enabler of men who beat women” and railed that the NFL ought to clean house and fire the commissioner along with other league executives.

It didn’t happen. When Goodell finally held a long-awaited press conference to address the mounting crisis, he again admitted the missteps—”I made a mistake and we need to be better,” he said—but mostly dodged reporters’ questions. He continually pointed to the league’s hiring of former FBI director Robert Mueller as a sign of seriousness, a promise that the NFL was gravely interested in determining the depth of its own wrongdoing. But hiring Mueller was a savvy diversion that let Goodell stall while fans and the press forgot their outrage. (As Fortune wrote at the time, such investigations take months, not weeks, and indeed, there is still no timeline for when we can expect a report. This month, NFL employees handed over scores of documents related to the case.)

You can already feel the entire saga fading away with the year 2014. It’s happened many times before. Consider the Miami Dolphins scandal involving Richie Incognito’s bullying of teammate Jonathan Martin, or “Bountygate,” when New Orleans Saints players received bonuses for injuring opponents. These controversies felt so significant at the time, but they are now largely forgotten. Ray Rice is already eligible to play again; Adrian Peterson will become eligible in April.

Meanwhile, the numbers show that the big business of football didn’t get sacked. In fact, it hardly felt a hit. Ratings for the sport continue to rise overall. The Ravens game during the week of the scandal was the most-watched Thursday Night Football game ever. Monday Night Football is consistently the highest-rated program in its time slot each week, and an October game between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys cracked the top 10 most-viewed cable programs of all time. This year, CBS (CBS) paid a reported $300 million just for the right to broadcast eight Thursday Night Football games that the NFL also shows on its own NFL Network. All five networks that show NFL games have seen their average audiences for the games rise from last season. American football is not only our nation’s pastime, it is also likely the last remaining form of television, save for live events like awards ceremonies and the Olympic Games, that people will still be willing to pay for in the near future as cord-cutting continues.

Sponsors, meanwhile, followed Goodell’s lead. They issued stern statements expressing concern, warning the league that they were watching and waiting. In hindsight, these amounted to careful crisis management more than anything else. Verizon (VZ) CEO Lowell McAdam wrote something on LinkedIn; PepsiCo (PEP) CEO Indra Nooyi issued a personal statement. These and other brands earned praise for their responses—and that was that. Pepsi didn’t walk away. Neither did Verizon. New Era stuck around. Anheuser-Busch InBev (ADR) stayed. Nike (NKE) stayed, though it dropped its personal endorsement deals with Rice and Peterson. In short, big brands didn’t walk away. Why would they, and how could they? What other American sport brings the guaranteed eyeballs and return on investment of the NFL? None. Super Bowl XLIX, on February 1, will undoubtedly set TV records.

As for Goodell, who didn’t resign, you could argue the entire debacle only raised his profile. (Fans who never knew or cared to know the name of the NFL commissioner certainly know it now.) As the saying goes: “Any press is good press.” In a recent poll of sports media figures, the most common choice for the most fascinating person to watch in 2015 was Roger Goodell.

He will certainly be watched next year. But Goodell will continue to serve as commissioner and “protect the shield,” as the league’s internal mantra goes. The games will roll on. The money will roll in. Just this month, Goodell announced the implementation of additional fixes and policy changes to prevent such events from occurring again—they went largely unreported because the furor has died down and fans have mostly moved on.

Like the on-demand car service Uber, the NFL proved remarkably adept this year at escaping the stink of a business scandal.

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