Roger Goodell and NFL Players; The Relationship Dynamics
ESPN’s Jeff Chadiya examines relationships that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has formed with the league’s players:
“On the Wednesday before the NFL draft, as mid-morning sunshine soaked lower Manhattan, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell strode onto a soccer field cluttered with giddy children, eager reporters and 26 draft prospects. The league had organized a football clinic as part of its “Play 60” program, and Goodell, wearing a baggy blue sweat suit, ambled to midfield to survey the action. The commissioner was there to help future rookies sell youth fitness, but he didn’t overlook an opportunity to chat with New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who was speaking at the event. The two spoke for at least 10 minutes, talking seriously at times, joking and laughing at others and looking eerily like long-lost pals.
This didn’t seem like the no-nonsense Roger Goodell who just issued suspensions to four players — including a one-year ban for linebacker Jonathan Vilma — for their roles in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty system. It also didn’t appear that Goodell had any problems bonding with a veteran at a time when so many players despise him.
“The stupidity of some people gets me sometimes,” Umenyiora said later, adding that he first met Goodell on a USO tour of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008. “A lot of players think he’s trying to take away our game, but Roger really cares about us. He’s a regular guy.” Goodell surely would love to hear similar comments from other players. The problem is that too many players don’t think like Umenyiora. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison once said, “If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn’t do it.” Others whisper that he is arrogant, endowed with too much power and wants to both govern and be liked. Some have even developed a catchphrase for summarizing their feelings: “You can’t spell Goodell without G-O-D.”
Goodell clearly understands that such hostility comes with his job. What makes him so intriguing is his unwavering desire to forge a relationship with players who are at odds with his reign. Arizona Cardinals kicker and NFL Players Association representative Jay Feely said, “There’s a general distrust for him.” Kansas City right tackle Eric Winston, who joined the Chiefs after six seasons in Houston, added, “He’s judge, jury and executioner. The joke around the locker room in Houston was that Goodell is like Xerxes [the ruler] in the movie ‘300.’ He can do whatever he wants. Obviously, he has the power to do that — and that’s partially our fault because we didn’t get it addressed in the [collective bargaining agreement] — but it also doesn’t make for a friendly environment.”
“The basis of what we do is about keeping the integrity of the game,” Goodell said when asked about how players view him. “We’re committed to doing that, and I know everybody isn’t going to like how we’re doing it. But I also don’t make up rules while I’m just sitting at my desk. I have to get at least 24 teams to agree on them. I have to go through a competition committee and talk to coaches and players and collect as much information as we can before making a decision. That’s a good thing. And that’s something dictators don’t do.”
To the average player, Goodell is best known for his harsh policies. Players have seen teammates called to the league office to discuss behavior and vicious hits and they’ve seen more peers strictly penalized for breaking newly emphasized rules that sometimes contradict how they learned the game. Harrison is the most prominent target of this new NFL — the five-time Pro Bowl linebacker has been fined six times for a total of $125,000 and was suspended one game last season after a collision with Browns quarterback Colt McCoy– but there are plenty of others who can empathize with his pain. In today’s league, a face mask ($15,000 fine for a second offense) or excessive profanity ($20,000 for a second offense) penalty can be extra costly.
The environment became even more tense after the recent Saints scandal. In addition to banning Vilma, Goodell suspended former New Orleans defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove (eight games), defensive end Will Smith (four) and former linebacker Scott Fujita (three). The NFLPA has filed a grievance challenging the authority of Goodell to suspend the players.
Though players had mixed reactions to the punishments — Giants quarterback Eli Manning tweeted that “[Roger Goodell] is doing the right thing to make sure that this doesn’t happen ever again” while Miami Dolphins running back Reggie Bush wrote, “Man, these suspensions are outrageous!” — most understand how such discipline reflects on Goodell.
“I’ve been in the locker room when those fines come down and I know what happens when you’re dealing with 53 guys who don’t know Roger,” former Giants center and player representative Shaun O’Hara said. “You’ve got the guy getting fined plus five guys to his left and five guys to his right who see it. That’s 11 guys who now hate the commissioner. That stuff can spread like wildfire.”