Roger Goodell’s Powerful Impact On The NFL Is Not Going Unnoticed
ESPN The Magazine’s Don Van Natta examines NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s power over America’s most popular sport:
BEHIND THE CLOSED doors of a Capitol Hill chamber, Roger Goodell sits on a panel with an Army general before a rapt audience of two dozen lawmakers. The NFL commissioner swaps ideas with four-star Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III about how to better protect the brains of the young people who fight America’s wars and play America’s game. They also discuss changing the “warrior mentality” among soldiers and players, who keep fighting and playing through pain. The parallel is unmistakable: To detect and treat traumatic brain injuries, the U.S. Army and the NFL are partners in survival.
This was on Sept. 12 of 2012. Clad in a navy blue business suit offset by a bright yellow tie, Goodell, 54, jots notes as Austin speaks. Almost 7,000 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan have sensors embedded in their helmets to record concussive events, Austin tells Goodell. Another general muses that it’s easy to imagine that someday the Army’s sensors will be embedded in every NFL player’s helmet.
From Capitol Hill, Goodell races to a luncheon interview at the W Hotel before a crowd of fans. The interview, initiated by the league office, is conducted by a friendly questioner from the Politico website who allows Goodell to combat a swirl of bad news, from the league’s lockout of the referees to a run of negative player-safety studies. On that most important issue, he tells the awed audience, in his methodical manner of speaking: “Player health and safety is an issue that we’ve always been focused on. It’s always been a priority.”
Three years earlier, on another, more unsettling visit to Capitol Hill, Goodell was ripped by House Judiciary Committee members and former players. Repeatedly, he was pressed to acknowledge a link between playing football and cognitive erosion. Despite the fact that the league’s retirement board had already made the link internally years earlier, he refused.
Now, confronted with additional urgent player-safety questions, the polished, unflappable, confident CEO smiles and assures everyone that the NFL is transforming football into a safer, better and more exciting game.
Goodell likes to say that for the NFL and football to evolve and continue to thrive, everyone must contribute: players, coaches, officials, executives and the commissioner. But, he often reminds people, he is the commissioner, and it’s his job to safeguard the game’s integrity — “protect the shield,” as he puts it. And under his watch, the league has become significantly more powerful, with mushrooming revenue and global influence.
Over the past five months, ESPN has interviewed more than 80 people and obtained thousands of confidential documents for this story. (Goodell, however, declined multiple interview requests.)
The league has never been more divided. Last year’s Bountygate was the latest disciplinary action to turn into a fiasco, breeding distrust of Goodell in many players. While fans lavish more attention on the league than ever before, many diehards ask whether the end is near, saying they’d never let their children play such a dangerous game. At the center of these swirling tensions is Goodell, whose decisiveness and relentlessness have come to define the NFL, for better or worse.
What’s clear is that Goodell is tasked with the seemingly impossible: make the game safer for the players, more exciting for the fans and more profitable for the owners. If he has any chance of meeting those three goals, he must find a way to repair the breach between him and many players, their union and fans. At stake is no less than the future of the game, and he knows it.
The history lesson not only places Goodell in Roosevelt’s shoes and the current worries about player safety into a historical context, it also portends one of his greatest fears: An NFL player is going to die on the field.
It’s happened only once. Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes died of a heart attack late in a game on Oct. 24, 1971. Within the past year, Goodell has told friends privately that he believes if the game’s hard-knocks culture doesn’t change, it could happen again. “He’s terrified of it,” says a Hall of Fame player who speaks regularly with Goodell. “It wouldn’t just be a tragedy. It would be awfully bad for business.”
It’s a business Goodell can take much of the credit for. In 2013 the NFL will almost certainly exceed $10 billion in annual revenue for the first time, drawing closer to his goal of $25 billion by 2027 that he’s shared privately with the owners. In 2014 the NFL’s television contracts with CBS, NBC and Fox will increase 63 percent to an average of $3.1 billion a year. Next fall ESPN will begin paying the NFL $1.9 billion a year, up from $1.1 billion. Goodell and the league, headquartered at 345 Park Ave. in Manhattan, aggressively seize technological platforms and new markets — its own fantasy football platform, the NFL Network and the RedZone channel, among others. Thirteen clubs are set to renovate their stadiums with $3.3 billion committed by the league and owners. Goodell has pushed expanding the regular season to 18 games and talked of adding more playoff teams, proposals that players and union leaders say is contrary to his goal of improving player safety. Says Jones, “He is what I call a grow-the-pie thinker.”
As Rooseveltian visionary, though, Goodell has struggled. Privately he is personable, down-to-earth, a good listener and a brilliant negotiator. But he also has a short fuse and can be hypersensitive to criticism of the league. He sometimes barks when asked to bend his principles, the ones he learned from his late father, a U.S. senator. He gets enraged when someone, even an owner, tarnishes the integrity of the game or challenges his judgment. Many players and union leaders talk about his failure of accountability. “Right now the league office and commissioner Goodell have little to no credibility with players,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said in December. Sixty-one percent of active players said they disapprove of the overall job Goodell is doing, according to a January USA Today poll of 300 players.
In the lengthy Bountygate scandal against the Saints, Goodell suspended four players, despite scant evidence to do so, during a period of heightened sensitivity about player safety. Last September he recognized that the referee lockout was hurting the game, but he went along with it because team owners had insisted on prolonging the standoff to its embarrassing conclusion. Both episodes became public relations disasters.
Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue believes that the bitter emotions surrounding lockouts in successive years and Goodell’s severe player penalties contributed to his sinking popularity. Yet he also notes that Goodell’s public “style” doesn’t help him. “I think Roger comes off as uncompromising,” Tagliabue says, after considering his answer for a moment. “In fact, he’s a good compromiser. You put him in a room with a governor, public officials and others, and he does compromise. But in public, he comes across as uncompromising.”
Tagliabue mulls over the word for a moment. “He just comes across as uncompromising.”
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