Back in the Line of Fire
As Roger Goodell takes that long walk across the stage tonight in Chicago to usher in the 2015 NFL draft, there will be boos. He would have been greeted this way regardless of what happened over the past year, as it’s become the fans’ customary greeting at the draft. Last season, however, was the most turbulent time in his tenure as commissioner, punctuated by a series of missteps and public relations blunders that stoked the nation’s anger.
The Conduct Commissioner, as I have called Goodell in the past, swung and missed on the very issue that defined him, forcing many to question his credibility. For the inevitable boo birds, there’s more ammunition this year than ever before. And although Goodell removed what he called a “distraction” of the league’s tax-exempt status this week, there are no such easy removals of other “distractions” that have followed the NFL into 2015.
At the time of last year’s draft, the Ray Rice video hadn’t gone viral. When it did, the league’s image began to unravel. The public was in an uproar over Rice’s initial punishment; the Mueller Report chastised the league’s lax investigatory process; sponsors brayed and broadcasters questioned their role in covering the league. Despite the creative framing of the commissioner’s exempt list for Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy, and despite “No More” campaigns, a slew of new hires with domestic-violence backgrounds and a strengthened conduct policy, the NFL came off as reactive rather than proactive. Added to the scrutiny are questions about the league-friendly settlement in the concussion lawsuit with retired players and the plodding investigation into deflated footballs.
Goodell, the face of the country’s most popular sports league, has referred to it all as a “year of learning.” His job security meanwhile has come under scrutiny, but he remains steadfast in denying any suggestion that he’d abdicate his throne. When he responds to such questions, I can almost picture a thought bubble hovering above his head: Resign? Really? Have you seen our numbers lately?
When teaching about a commissioner’s powers in classes on sports business and law, we start with a fundamental question: What is his primary role? It’s naïve to think a commissioner has the sole mandate of acting in the game’s best interests. With the massive investments that franchises have become in all pro sports, a commissioner’s first priority is to answer to those who hire, fire and compensate him: the owners. And while many owners may have purchased teams for emotional and psychosocial reasons, their primary concerns are profitability, increased asset value and the assurance that business is on the uptick.
And the NFL’s business is definitely on the uptick. Rights fees and ratings are at record numbers; a league-friendly CBA is in place for five more years; the Bills were recently sold for $1.4 billion; glittering stadia (plural!) may soon be rising from the ground in Los Angeles; and sponsors and business partners, despite some saber rattling last September, love the product and the fan demographics. Not surprisingly, Goodell has received unqualified support every time an owner has been queried about his performance and his future.
The owners don’t need Roger Goodell to be popular. Rather, they need him to 1) oversee a successful and flourishing business venture, 2) provide leadership in difficult times, and 3) withstand blows that could otherwise be directed at them. Owners are too aligned with their individual franchises to take national blame, which makes Goodell the natural and easy target.
Throughout the Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy imbroglios, there was a notable lack of discipline handed down by the respective team owners—and little or no blowback on any of them. Owners aren’t spending billions to be ridiculed; it’s why they pay Goodell millions to stand in the line of fire and take the heat. He understands being a punching bag for fans and media is part of his job description.
But Goodell still doesn’t make it easy on himself. His public appearances can be robotic. He presents as corporate, guarded and always unrevealing. Although he is not a lawyer, his responses to questions are, well, lawyerly: safeguarded, diplomatic and careful. He is highly protective of the league’s processes and protocols, and he’s mastered the art of answering questions without giving away information.
While I understand there are times when it’s prudent to be careful, I think Goodell could help himself if he were more open and transparent. NBA commissioner Adam Silver—who, like Goodell, rose through the ranks of his league—reveals more of himself and his position during press conferences and in smaller settings. As a lawyer, Silver understands the need for protecting sensitive information, but he comes across as comfortable, relaxed and clear in his vision for the league and its fans. He can be humorous and self-deprecating, sprinkling in personal anecdotes such as his twice-daily dog walks. Silver’s platforms may be controversial, such as his support for legalized gambling, but he presents them in a clear and cogent manner that recognizes other viewpoints. Silver is a model for Goodell to show a more human side.
I know what you must be thinking: Goodell doesn’t have a more human side! But he does. I’ve seen it, especially when it comes to an issue that has defined his tenure as commissioner: player conduct. I have watched him give an audience to many constituencies—former and current players, player agents and team officials below the ownership level—and listen intently to their concerns not as a cold decision-maker but as a person seeking to understand. I have seen him follow through with players who had previous misconduct issues, and seen such players (including Chad Johnson and Donte' Stallworth) later count among his friendships. I’ve also been told that Goodell has opened the floor in many recent meetings about domestic violence by saying, “I want to learn all I can about this, tell me everything.”
Yet despite having had ample opportunities over the past year to show a more vulnerable side, Goodell refuses. I can only surmise that it is what the owners want: a persistently strong and tight-lipped leader in the face of adversity. Vulnerability and human frailty aren’t part of the NFL commissioner’s job description.
Thus, as Goodell walks back and forth on the stage tonight in Chicago, the boos will be amplified. For better or worse, he is the face of the NFL, and his image is less a concern to his bosses than is the bottom line.
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