Sunday, October 17, 2010

Goodell, von Ranke, and Factual Bedrock

Roger Goodell, the pragmatic, business-savvy commissioner of the National Football League, would seem to have little in common with Leopold von Ranke, the staid nineteenth-century German historian.

Goodell spends his days managing the cash cow that is the NFL. Like his counterpart David Stern in the NBA, the commish is ever-alert to minimizing scandals involving star players. If such scandals spin out of control, the league's brand could become tarnished and the line of ready and willing advertisers for TV commercials start to diminish.

Ranke, by contrast, was a German professor who did his work far from the media limelight, in another place and time. Over 150 years ago, he was a key figure in pioneering the professionalization of history as an academic discipline that insists on the use of original documents. Using authentic sources, his goal was to recreate the past "wie as eigentlich gewesen."

Interpretations differ on how to properly translate this German phrase. One view is that Ranke meant historians are to draw upon archival research to present the past as it actually was. Others suggest that the word "eigentlich" is a type of linguistic flavoring particle, and that Ranke did not claim that a historian can truly conjure up the past in all its teeming complexity, no matter how close the research stays to the original sources.

No matter how one interprets the phrase "wie es eigentlich gewesen," however, it seems clear that Roger Goodell's announced goals in the investigation of a possible sex scandal involving legendary quarterback Brett Favre are Rankean in nature. While playing for the New York Jets in 2008, Favre may have sent inappropriate text messages and provocative photos to a sexy sideline reporter named Jenn Sterger.

Favre has moved on to the Minnesota Vikings, where, at 41, he is once again the center of attention for legions of football fans. Sterger, 26, has moved on from the Jets as well, and now has her own spot on a sports-themed cable channel.

Meanwhile, allegations about Favre's (supposed) attempts to seduce Sterger have spilled out into the print media, after first circulating online. Commissioner Goodell has acknowledged that an investigation is underway, and Favre, like Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger before him, could face a fine or suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.

I applaud Goodell for undertaking a thorough investigation. He sounded downright Rankean in his statement of intent: "We want to make sure that we understand exactly what happened." Serious allegations require serious fact-checking, so the commissioner's deliberation is far preferable to a tabloid rush to judgment or an old-school stonewalling denial.

Yet there is also a certain amount of epistemological naivete - or dis-in-jenn-uousness (bad pun there) - in the premise of Goodell's statement. From Kurosawa's famous film Rashomon to the controversial Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill theatrics at Thomas' Supreme Court confirmation hearing, it is not difficult to find examples of how challenging it can be to get at the whole truth.

This is not to say that truth always eludes us, and that all accounts are relative. As a historian and as a lawyer, I have no doubt that, even amid dueling accusations and interpretations, there is a factual bedrock.

In the case of Favre and Sterger, getting to that bedrock will involve a lot more than interviewing the two principals. The NFL had better get the cell-phone records, so that faithful football fans are not left relying on You Tube, trying to figure out what's going on.

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