An Open Letter to NFL Owners: The Game Deserves Better
Dear NFL owners,
I have loved the NFL ever since I can remember. I can recall watching games on the couch with my father, and how he stressed the importance of good line play. I remember my first plastic Dolphins helmet, and my favorite Dan Marino jersey (it’s still in my closet somewhere). I cheered in the rain at the Orange Bowl and froze on the metal bleachers at Foxboro Stadium. I tried to make it out alive at Giants Stadium and the Vet. I now make my living by (hopefully) enhancing fans’ knowledge of the game, and I often talk in the car with my son and daughter about the big games coming up. I can’t remember when the NFL hasn’t played a central role in my life. I love the game of football, and I have immense respect for those who are in that arena.
After much debate and consideration, I feel it’s necessary to tell you this: You can and should do better. Roger Goodell needs to go, or at least be reassigned. And he should be replaced by an independent commissioner.
I get it: You like Goodell. He’s been a loyal NFL employee for many years, and he’s made you a lot of money by positioning the league to take advantage of every revenue stream and by getting you a great deal in the current collective bargaining agreement. He also seems to be a good guy.
But NFL fans have lost faith in his ability to lead the league. In Sports Illustrated’s Fan Poll, just 29% think Goodell should keep his job. After last week’s press conference debacle, he has no credibility. The players have felt this way for a long time. Now fans are standing with them, hoping for better.
Article VIII in the Constitution and Bylaws of the National Football League is titled, “Commissioner.” The first line reads: “The League shall select and employ a person of unquestioned integrity to serve as Commissioner…” Goodell’s integrity is very much in question, which, by the letter of your law, means he is unfit for the office he holds.
It’s time to show fans that you care about more than money and personal loyalties. It is time for the league to have an independent commissioner who is not handpicked by the owners.
How he handled the Ray Rice case is just the latest example. How Goodell passed judgment on him without demanding the video from inside the elevator is unconscionable at best, and showing possible favoritism to the Ravens at worst. This has been a problem before.
Goodell meted out his punishment for the Patriots in Spygate four days before anyone from the league office examined the Patriots’ other tapes and associated notes to determine the extent and influence of the illegal taping. Then the tapes and notes were destroyed. Why? Was it a favor to Patriots owner Robert Kraft? We’ll never know.
When Goodell conducted a coin toss to determine whether the Giants or Jets would host the first game at MetLife Stadium, he didn’t invite either team and declared the Giants the winner. Was this a favor to the Maras one of the NFL’s founding families, over newcomer Woody Johnson? Again, we’ll never know. But Johnson issued a statement that said plenty, then and now. “The League departed from our time-honored tradition and declined the opportunity to set the matter straight with a transparent process,” he said.
It’s not clear if Goodell even understands the concept of transparency, which is the foundation of trust and integrity. During the press conference he said, “There is no reason we cannot be as transparent and as effective on these [personal conduct] issues as we are with the game on the field.” Later, when asked what Rice said in the hearing, Goodell sidestepped the question by invoking Rice’s appeal. There is no reason not to answer that question. What Rice already said is fact and evidence. An appeal, in which Goodell will be called as a witness to explain how Rice’s words were ambiguous, is not going to change that. Tell us now what your testimony will be.
When asked about the Associated Press report that said the elevator tape of Rice knocking out his then-fiancée had been sent to the league office months before Goodell handed down a mere two-game ban, the commissioner offered nothing in the way of genuine answers. When asked about anything of substance, Goodell deferred to the investigation by former FBI director Robert Mueller or to the committee he plans to form by the Super Bowl—five months from now—to recommend changes to the personal conduct policy.
Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf were found by a New Jersey judge in a civil case to have committed fraud, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty, in violation of the state’s RICO statute, and ordered to pay $84.5 million. They have not been punished by Goodell.
Browns owner Jimmy Haslam's truck stop company, Pilot Flying J, agreed to pay a $92 million penalty as part of a federal fraud investigation. He has not been punished by the NFL.
With Haslam, the league has taken the position that “there have been no allegations of any personal conduct that is in violation of NFL policy.” The league hasn’t issued a statement on the Wilfs, but the cases are similar: Two league owners were punished by the judicial system for fraud.
The league’s personal conduct policy clearly states that a person doesn’t have to be convicted or even engage in criminal activity to be punished. “You are held to a higher standard and expected to conduct yourself in a way that is responsible, promotes the values upon which the League is based, and is lawful,” the policy reads. “Persons who fail to live up to this standard of conduct are guilty of conduct detrimental and subject to discipline, even where the conduct itself does not result in conviction of a crime.” One circumstance that allows discipline to be imposed: “Conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL players.”
And, finally, Goodell appointed Mueller to conduct the independent investigation of the Rice episode. Mueller is a partner at the law firm of WilmerHale. Not only has that firm done work for the NFL, but Ravens president Dick Cass, a central figure in the investigation, was also a partner there for 31 years. This isn’t just a failure of transparency. It’s an insult to NFL fans who are continually being disappointed by the failures of leadership.
These are just the examples we know about, but it makes you wonder: How many times has Goodell sided with one team because he knows that owner better? Did he punish the Saints harshly in Bountygate because Goodell isn’t as chummy with Tom Benson? Which owners are talking to Goodell before he disciplines a player on that team? We don’t know because Goodell doesn’t want us to know.
His idea of transparency has been a curtain, and only he holds the rope. A few years back I questioned his involvement in a Rex Ryan scheme to manipulate then-Jets receiver Santonio Holmes to the team’s advantage. Goodell wouldn’t stop to answer my questions, so our “interview” was 71 seconds long on the move. The look he gave me was, basically, “How dare you question my motives?”
All NFL owners have preached, in some form, that everyone must do right by the league and game. It’s time to show fans that you care about more than money and personal loyalties. The game of football is bigger than that. It is time for the league to have an independent commissioner who is not handpicked by the owners. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would make a fine choice. Other respected public figures who come to mind include John Madden, Steve Young, Alan Page, Steve Largent, Tony Dungy, J.C. Watts, Carl Levin, Robert Thomas, Cory Booker and Jon Runyan.
Really, it doesn’t matter who it is. As long as the next commissioner has a mission of overseeing the game fairly, independently and transparently, fans will be on board. It has to be about more than just “protecting the shield”—which we now know is code for looking out for team owners, with Goodell telling fans only what he thinks we need to know and when. With all due respect, you owners might control the teams, but the players give football its vitality and fans are the ones who buy the tickets, purchase the concessions, give you the TV ratings and buy the merchandise that funds this game. We have a stake in the game. In our own way, we too are owners. We more than deserve a say.
I’ve spoken to many of you owners during my career. You take great pride in knowing that football is the most popular game in the country. You want the NFL to be a beacon that people can look to for direction. You’ve made plenty of money, and you’ll continue to make much more. Electing an independent commissioner can make the NFL even more popular without threatening your bottom line. You would be acting as true stewards of the game and making fans feel as if they’re more than just line items on a spreadsheet. Prove to them that they have a voice. Prove to them that you’re listening.
Convene a committee to find the next NFL commissioner, and include player representatives and season-ticket holders. Let them whittle down the list of candidates. Find the people with the best ideas on how to bring the integrity of the league up to the level of the game. Should there be a clearer line of demarcation between the football side of the league office and the business side? Should there be a CEO along with the CFO, both of whom report to a commissioner? Who should make personal conduct decisions? Let’s find a way to bring more transparency to 345 Park Avenue.
The game has taken a massive hit due to out-of-touch leadership. Don’t further the damage by backing Roger Goodell out of misguided loyalty. Instead, take a step back and open your minds. Football is a great game, but only because of the people who play it and support it. You’ll never get another opportunity like this. The time to act is now. Put someone in charge who will do what’s right for the game, not just for you.
Greg A. Bedard