I feel I’m in a unique position to speak on Roger Goodell’s career as the commissioner of the NFL from a player’s perspective, because he and I entered our current places in the league exactly 10 years ago. He became commissioner of the NFL in August 2006, just when I began my first NFL training camp for the Washington Redskins, where I have been blessed to play my entire career. He was 47 years old and rose from being a former NFL intern to become possibly the most powerful commissioner in all sports entities in the world. I was 23 years old and was selected by Washington as a sixth-round pick (No. 196 overall) out of Georgia. You can find about as many differing opinions on Goodell’s decade in office as there have been players in the NFL since he took the helm, but from what I see and hear, just about every NFL player, current and retired, would likely agree on two things, without much dispute: The money has gotten significantly better for all parties involved; and the penalties on players have gotten a lot tougher, without much recourse for us in many instances.
The most important thing to understand about Roger Goodell—and this has been true since Day One—is that he works for the owners, just like we do as players. He is their advocate first and foremost. But he has never lost sight of wanting the league, teams and players all to succeed together. The owners hired him to do a job, and he’s done it—quite well most would say. He’s led the growth of the NFL, creating new revenue streams that have taken our game from a national pastime to a global player by making inroads into the fan bases of Europe, Mexico, Canada, Japan and soon China, based on reports of potential future games there. When the owners picked Goodell a decade ago, they surely hoped he would grow the NFL. I do wonder how many owners, much less the players, would imagine the new guy would turn “the Shield” into an internationally recognized symbol of power and an economic juggernaut.
Goodell is gatekeeper for our nation’s most popular sport. He has a duty to all parties—owners, players and especially the fans.
Along with making the NFL stronger than ever, Goodell also has an second job that is a considerably more important mandate: to ensure the future of the game by being strategic in the expansion and growth of our sport while keeping our product consistent. In this respect I believe the commissioner needs to be cautious at the least, and maybe even highly guarded. Goodell is the gatekeeper for our nation’s most popular game, one that means more than can be put into words for legions of fans. Goodell has a fiduciary duty to all parties alike, from the owners to the current players to the legacies of the former players who laid the foundation for the game we have today, to the most important people of all—the fans! Without the fans, the game will perish. And on that note, without the players’ best interests being adhered to, the game itself will suffer and the product on the field will be diminished. We could risk losing the passionate interest and sheer love of the game from our fans, the single most integral part of making the NFL what it is today.
Sure, I think most fans would like to see “more NFL games” based on our attendance at games, viewership on TV, subscriptions to Sunday Ticket and the NFL Network, and the meteoric rise of fantasy football, which that brought us a whole new viewing channel, in the RedZone. Let’s start with the 18-game season. In 2011, the commissioner said fan interest is driving the idea. “The fans have clearly stated that they don’t like the preseason. We have a 20-game format, 16 regular season games and four preseason games, and the fans have repeatedly said the preseason games don’t meet NFL standards. And that is the basis on which we started this 18-game concept, taking two low-quality preseason games and turning them into two high-quality regular season games.” But we must ask ourselves, is this what is best for the game?
We have to be highly cautious of adding more games that threaten to dilute the importance of each game, and moreover will certainly put player health, in both the short term and the long term, in much greater peril. If the NFL truly cares about player health to the degree it has stated many times in the face of numerous lawsuits over the last several years, then an increase in regular season games is absolutely contradictory to this mantra. We see many instances of players playing 95% of the plays over the course of a 16-game season, with few substitutions made at many positions. I don’t know of a single player who has an “I might get hurt on this play” mentality as they go about making plays each week. However, the reality of our sport is that the more plays you play in a violent, collision-based game, the higher the likelihood that at some point your will break down and result in an injury of some type. When players get hurt, the game suffers as a whole. Teams are weakened. Fans are shorted, their weakened team now having less chance of winning week to week, much less winning a championship. And as the fans are what fuel the NFL’s economic engine, they deserve better for the money they spend.
More games also means fewer games of consequence at the end of the regular season, and more injury-ravaged teams in the playoffs. I believe fans want to see their favorite team play their archrivals in a meaningful, season-deciding, winner-take-all–type showdown in late December or the first Sunday in January. In the case of our beloved Redskins fans, I am sure they would like to see a season-ending game versus the Cowboys, Eagles or Giants that has our best players going toe-to-toe, not the least-injured team limping into the playoffs uncontested.
The more the game grows, the better it is for everybody. But in the end, you want the product to be consistent and at its absolute best whenever possible.
Here’s the problem with complaining about the rules as an NFL player: We agreed to it. What Goodell gets wrong can often be chalked up to what we players agreed upon in the collective bargaining process.
This sport is played by world-class athletes in a high-pressure, high-impact environment where split-second decisions that effect the entire team are sometimes unavoidable. I’ve played with Sean Taylor and Ryan Clark, some of the hardest-hitting guys in the league. These guys never wanted to hurt anybody. They understood what was at risk for everyone on the field and played the game the way it should be played and the way it is taught by coaches. I understand that the league has to be mindful of concussions as a way to secure the future of the game. Year after year we try to improve our product by increasing player safety while making the game more exciting. This sport will always be played by tough, physical men, so it’s up to us to find a balance in making sure the game is true to form as we all know and love it. In a league in which the average career is two to three years and the average player does not eclipse $1 million dollars in career earnings, a $50,000 fine is an outrageous consequence for making a football decision. The penalty on the field is consequence enough to players who understand the magnitude and implications their actions have on the team.
But here’s the big problem with complaining about the rules as an NFL player: We agreed to it. What Goodell gets wrong in the eyes of many NFL players, and fans of aggrieved teams and favorite players, can often be chalked up to what we as players agreed upon in the collective bargaining process in 2011 during the lockout.
I believe NFL players should be afforded the same due process that citizens enjoy in the courts, but that was collectively bargained.
I don’t believe that the person who gives you the punishment should be the person you appeal that punishment to, but that was collectively bargained. And although we now have “impartial” hearing officers, they seem to be a revolving door, changing almost seasonally and affording players very little consistency in a world of seemingly subjective enforcement.
I don’t believe players ought to be fined for actions during a football game unless they are done out of malice, but that was collectively bargained. Since when should a player be fined roughly a thousand dollars per each yard of penalty, as is pretty much the case with unsportsmanlike conduct or roughing the passer? This is patently unfair—to be financially penalized and deprived of income for simply making an infraction in a game. But again, it was agreed to in the collective bargaining process.
I’m confident there will be a time when Goodell or the next commissioner doesn’t have the final say in player discipline.
As a player rep for my team, I understand why we came to these agreements. In the CBA negotiations, you try to make those strides to get what you want for the next generation. There were guys who fought for free agency two decades ago who never got to play in a league with free agency, but my colleagues and I were able to reap the benefits of their work. I’m confident there will be a time when Goodell or the next commissioner doesn’t have the final say in player discipline. Could Goodell have refused those discipline powers in the interest of avoiding controversy? Certainly, but this is the job that has been bestowed upon him.
Despite some outcomes in the 2011 agreement that may be construed as setbacks or even “losses,” I think we made major strides and won quite a few concessions in terms of improving player safety, allowing players to take care of their own bodies and allowing players the opportunities to complete or even further their education as part of a comprehensive benefits package that was a focal point for our negotiations almost five years ago. The four weeks that young players can longer spend with coaches and teams allows guys to get with their individual trainers and work on specific drills with them, allows time and provides assistance for guys go back to school and get their degrees, and, as important as anything, simply gives extra time to heal up injuries from the previous long season, time that was not available to players of years past. The NFL understands that the better we can transition guys out of the league the better off its image and the players will be.
It has been not only my honor but a privilege to have been in the NFL for a decade, and hopefully many more years. The game and the league have been good to me and my family, as it has been for many others, and for that I am very appreciative and thankful. I believe Roger Goodell understands that this is true for countless players and knows the place the game and the league have in our nation’s social fabric and history. I believe he has the success and future of the game at heart. It should be evident that as commissioner of the NFL the last 10 years, Goodell has done a remarkable job of spearheading growth of the league in many ways. We all, current players and owners alike, owe it to the players of the future and the greatest fans on earth to give them a better game in every way we can, while keeping it the game that has been played by professionals and loved by fans for almost a century.
• YOUR VIEWS ON ROGER GOODELL? We’ll compile the most thoughtful reader feedback on the commissioner for a post on Friday. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.