Now That the Games are Done…
The good news for the NFL is the season ended with a scintillating flourish, showing a record audience its best product, with one of its brightest stars (Tom Brady) shining and, in a made-for-Hollywood twist, an undrafted rookie (Malcom Butler) making the game-winning play. The bad news is that the game is the last meaningful one for over seven months. Without on-field competition to distract attention from off-field crises and credibility issues, the scrutiny on the NFL’s leadership and operations will only increase. Welcome to the offseason.
Even during Super Bowl week, it was easy to forget that there was an actual game to play. Although the NFL’s extensive public relations staff gamely tried to keep the messaging on all the good about football, the shadow of the NFL’s season of questioned integrity loomed large in Phoenix. And as commissioner Roger Goodell gave his state-of-the-NFL address Friday in usually sunny Arizona, stormy weather permeated the atmosphere in the sky (literally) and in the room (metaphorically). Let’s examine some of the key markers mentioned by Goodell on the state of the league.
Goodell predictably deferred all questioning to the ongoing Wells investigation. Beyond the rhetoric about psi and ball boys going into bathrooms, this presents an interesting illustration of other teams’ paranoia about the close friendship between Goodell and Robert Kraft. Although Colts general manager Ryan Grigson reportedly requested the inquiry, that had to come from above in owner Jim Irsay, and he may not be the only owner spurring this investigation.
Further, in talking to team personnel throughout the week, I noticed a conspicuous silence about this investigation, almost a Glad it’s not us! feeling about it. I am speculating, but doctored footballs do not strike team personnel as either rare or worthy of any significant penalty.
Goodell bristled at conflict-of-interest questions concerning investigators such as Ted Wells and Robert Mueller, citing their impeccable reputations. As to cost of their services—I would estimate Mueller’s personal rate alone is in the range of $1500 per hour—Goodell’s patronizing answer to Rachel Nichols of CNN, asking her if she was going to cover that cost, did not go over well with the audience.
I have been a voice in the wilderness calling for an NFL ombudsman, a chief ethics officer serving as the full-time conscience of the league. He or she could not overrule league decisions but could evaluate if they are truly in the “best interests of the game” rather than in the “best interests of the owners,” as most decisions have become in this era of big business.
Beyond the practical function of an ombudsman, he or she would bring at least the sorely needed appearance of independence to the league.
Health and Safety
Goodell trumpeted the NFL report of a 25% reduction in concussions. That average of .43 concussions per game—approximately one concussion per team every five games—is hard to believe. Not included in this calculation are concussions in training camp, where a considerable number of subconcussive hits are taken, and the head trauma in recent games to players such as Julian Edelman, Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson, all examined quickly and returned to play after violent collisions.
The true problem with any concussion statistic is protecting players from themselves. Players want to play; it is what they do, and their flimsy job security and non-guaranteed contracts incentivize them to play through. They also now know that an unintended outcome of concussion awareness is that a player’s concussion history is a more important metric in teams’ evaluation of whether to sign or keep a player.
Goodell did give news that the league is to hire a new chief medical officer, a positive step to hopefully coordinate not only concussion protocol but all protocol to ensure best practices leaguewide. Bloomberg News reported on Sunday that the new hire would be Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, the president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, but has since reported that she declined the position.
Technology and Replay
Although we hear about enhancements every year, there are still issues with stadium wireless connections, and replays seem antiquated with referees still stopping play to go “under the hood.”
It was quite a juxtaposition to leave Goodell’s press conference and turn on tennis’ Australian Open with replay reviews done immediately—on the big screen for all to see—and the pace of the game barely interrupted. I know tennis is different, but with the resources of the NFL, it should be a leader in this area. As with the hiring of a chief medical officer, bringing in a chief technology officer—someone well versed in emerging new media—would be a smart hire.
Benson Family Feud
Goodell lined up firmly behind Tom Benson in his messy family feud regarding succession. After some bitter feelings from Benson regarding Bountygate a couple of years ago, the Saints owner has rallied behind the commissioner, and Goodell is reciprocating.
With Los Angeles as a constant stalking horse, Goodell’s message to city leaders of teams in play for relocation—St. Louis and San Diego among them—can be translated as: Show your NFL owner the money!
In referring to Lynch’s distaste for media in the category of things we don’t like to do in our job but it comes with the territory, Goodell set himself up for criticism. He was noticeably invisible following the Ray Rice elevator video, did not address the current deflated football issue for a similar amount of time and declined an interview with NBC during its Super Bowl telecast.
Influential players such as Richard Sherman have noted and been critical of this double standard, and Goodell needs to clear up this confusion and criticism. A standing appointment with the media, even monthly, would go a long way here.
Goodell knows there is no way on God’s green earth that 24 of the 32 owners would vote to remove him from office. He also knows that one of his roles is to take the hits so that owners don’t have to. As to his salary, I always feel like Goodell wants to answer Hey, I’m the CEO of a $10 billion enterprise; what do you think I should make?
Goodell was obviously coached on his state of the league address, mentioning the word “fan” 47 times in 48 minutes. While that works in theory, his corporate appearance still seems to fall flat. Perhaps that is for the benefit of his bosses—the owners—but my sense that is a softer, more human, more vulnerable side of Goodell would play well with the fans and media. And, as I have noted before in this space (although few believe it) I saw that side of Goodell during my time with the Packers. In following up on a couple players that we had suspended for substance abuse, Goodell was earnest and genuinely concerned for them, seeking out a meeting away from the cameras. I have also seen him quietly seek out players and agents in trying to gauge reaction to certain initiatives.
It is this side of Goodell that more people, especially players, need to see: a more human, more open, less corporate and less guarded Goodell. Perhaps that could be a project for his offseason.
Meanwhile, here is the reality behind the turmoil on the surface: The bottom line is the bottom line. In fact, the NFL reality series dramas may be even be good for business. All of the key metrics are pointing north. This was the most-watched Super Bowl in history (Deflategate is quite the marketing tool), the latest franchise sale was for $1.4 billion, and a team-friendly collective bargaining agreement is in place for six more years. The owners are concerned about public perception, but ultimately they are more concerned with profitability and future asset value.
Five Things I Thought about the Super Bowl…
1. It will be interesting to see the status of the contracts of the Patriots’ two best players. I do not see them picking up a $20 million option on Darrelle Revis, and I do not see Tom Brady playing for his scheduled $8 million. How those two contracts are addressed will be worth following.
2. Despite the emergence of Chris Matthews in the Super Bowl, I always find myself watching the Seahawks’ lack of dynamic receivers and saying “Percy Harvin must have been a real pain in the a%*!”
3. The idea of “legacy” is such a difficult one in a team sport. This is not tennis or golf. If the Seahawks had given Marshawn Lynch the ball and he ran in for a touchdown, would Tom Brady’s legacy change? The answer—although the final series had nothing to do with him—is yes.
4. On the day after the Super Bowl, one player entered rehab, another was released after being charged with animal cruelty, and NFL Network fired a former player for soliciting a prostitute. Welcome to the offseason!
5. The news on Johnny Manziel entering a rehabilitation center represents a positive step, but it speaks to behavior that has screamed out for some time. The Browns spent a first-round pick on a player known to be undisciplined on and off the field. To expect him to change after adding to his money and fame was unrealistic. Let’s hope that change may indeed come from within.
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