The conventional wisdom since the sort-of conclusion to Deflategate (the union could still appeal the case in the interest of its players beyond Tom Brady) has been that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could be on the ropes, now that his image has been battered not only by this never-ending story, but also the string of losses that preceded it: Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Bountygate, etc.
That’s certainly the hope all over New England, where we should all expect MIT’s entire Class of 2022 to come from. Never has the region “nerded out” as much as it did about decimal points and scientific formulas like the ideal gas law.
If you read the esteemed Sally Jenkins in the Washington Post last week, you’d also conclude that Goodell’s days were numbered.
The supreme irony here is that what was most important to Goodell, his image, has been destroyed. What was second-most important to him, his power, has been severely undermined. Though he won a technical victory when four judges split on whether he acted properly as an arbitrator, in reality he is a fatally weakened commissioner.
Heck, even my former boss, Peter King, the most widely read NFL writer in the country, opened the door wider than he ever has on Goodell’s future.
It’s easy to say the owners support Goodell, but I can tell you this: Some owners I know clearly do not like that the public face of the most successful sports league in American history gets more tomatoes thrown at it than any other commissioner in the 96-year history of the NFL. One centrist owner, John Mara of the Giants, loyal to Goodell, told The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas last week: “If there was an election held today, the overwhelming majority of owners would re-elect him.” But would they if the public tide doesn’t turn in, say, the next year?
This is significant. NFL owners care first about their bank accounts. Next in line, about 6,000 miles down the list in second place, is how America’s boardrooms view their game. The belief is that those opinions are greatly shaped by what is written in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and by Peter King. (It should be noted that the Journal has not offered an opinion on Goodell’s standing since Brady’s decision to stand down, and William C. Rhoden of the Times said that Goodell is now firmly in control.) And in distant third is how the league plays in Peoria, with the masses.
What’s the truth about Goodell’s standing post-Brady?
As much as this pains me to say, as someone who long before we ever knew football PSI was a thing thought that Goodell should be fired or demoted for the good of the game, Goodell is more secure in his job than he has been in years.
That’s right. The man that most of football-worshipping America loves to hate (for good reason) isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The opinion I offered nearly two years ago hasn’t changed; in fact, it’s been emboldened. Every meaningful decision Goodell has handed down from on high the past four-plus years has further exposed him as being the egotistical, arrogant, isolated and detached-from-the-real-world career NFL insider that he’s always been. There’s nothing more dangerous than a person in power who thinks they are more intelligent and virtuous than they really are. Goodell is both.
He should have been removed from office, but if the spineless owners haven’t done it by now, they’re never going to do it.
Did the owners like that the issue of Brady’s suspension dragged on for 545 days? No, but they love the result that will only strengthen the league and Goodell. He doubled down after Judge Richard Berman thwarted the league at the circuit court level. A loss in the appeals court could have been fatal for Goodell. But he won, and he won huge.
Even if Patriots owner Robert Kraft wanted to seek retribution and lead an ouster of Goodell, which all of New England would love to see (it’s about the only thing Kraft can do to reclaim his rightful place among Patriots fans), it’s not going to happen. NFL owners agreed to the rules and also that the threshold was a “preponderance of the evidence.” That the Patriots hit back so aggressively—both off the record and, later, on it—only bonded the other 31 teams against the Patriots’ position even more. It’s O.K. to appeal a league decision, but to engage in a lengthy all-out assault against the league and its personnel is just not how it’s done in the executive lodge. And when the Patriots basically trashed league counsel/executive vice president of labor Jeff Pash repeatedly, the Krafts were on their own. Pash generated a lot of goodwill around league circles with his long service, spearheading the labor strategy that yielded the new CBA. His public flogging did not go over well.
At this point, Goodell would win an ownership vote at worst 30–2, if not 31–0 with one abstention.
And these might be fateful words, but I just can’t see Goodell screwing else up enough to warrant his ouster.
Jenkins called Goodell a “fatally weakened commissioner.” After the decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, I would contend he’s more powerful than ever.
Unless an additional appeal by the NFLPA changes things, Goodell has sweeping power to make his decisions and serve as arbitrator. That’s a heavy chip to play with. Thanks to the lessons learned by his previous screw-ups, Goodell is primed to recover quickly.
NFL chief operating officer Tod Leiweke was brought in by Goodell personally to reduce the commissioner’s day-to-day duties. (He was not brought in by owners to neuter Goodell’s powers, as Jenkins implied.) Former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart replaced Paul Hicks as vice president of communications at Goodell’s suggestion after Lockhart helped manage the Rice fallout. Executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent now handles all aspects of on-field discipline. Former New York City sex crimes prosecutor Lisa Friel was brought in to handle all off-field issues.
The final piece of the puzzle, until labor becomes an issue again when the CBA expires after the 2020 season, is for Goodell to enact major and transparent health and safety initiatives that not only affect the league but change the game all the way down to Pop Warner. If the NFL does it right and puts major money behind it, it would help shift some of the perception of Goodell as the law and order commissioner (a role he gleefully embraced as soon as he took office) to the man who saved football by helping to make it safer. It took a public and humiliating tongue lashing by Congress to get Goodell moving on safety, but even his most ardent critics have to admit he has turned his focus toward that area of late. And I believe the NFL is going to go much further in this regard in the near future.
If Goodell stays out of sight, delegates to his new cabinet (a huge if, since that has been one of his major deficiencies), continues to grow revenue through the international and digital avenues and solidifies the game’s future with major safety initiatives, Goodell can rise even higher.
He’s taken well-earned and self-inflicted hits because of his many shortcomings, but as tough as this is to admit, it’s time to acknowledge that Goodell is far from finished.