Roger Goodell returns to Foxborough tonight to attend his first regular-season game since the 2015 AFC championship, when the drama of Deflategate first stirred. Technically it’s not the commissioner’s first trip to Gillette Stadium, but it’s his first real visit since suspending quarterback Tom Brady for four games and cementing his status among Patriots fans as Public Enemy No. 1. Goodell attended the Patriots’ preseason opener on Aug. 10, a quiet and unannounced (until after the fact) appearance at a meaningless game that could be seen as an attempt to limit the attention and response to his presence at the highly promoted, nationally telecast NFL season opener.
The commissioner attends the opener every year, so this date has been on Goodell’s schedule since New England won Super Bowl 51. In an effort to mitigate the negative reaction from fans in Foxborough, Goodell will finish up his pregame duties on the field early and will be off the field before the majority of Patriots fans are inside the stadium. The Patriots will not flash to any shots of the commissioner during the game on the video screens inside the stadium, and Goodell will not be sitting in Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s suite. (He did visit Kraft’s suite briefly during his preseason appearance.)
Asked how NBC, the game’s broadcaster, plans to cover Goodell’s return to New England on Thursday night, a network spokesperson said: “We will show the commissioner during coverage of the game, and cover any related news appropriately.”
What might constitute “related news?” Possibly, a stadium full of fans waving anti-Goodell towels. In advance of the NFL season opener, Barstool Sports spent $140,000 for 70,000 rally towels, printed with an image of Goodell’s face with a clown nose, originally a t-shirt design popularized by Barstool during the height of the Deflategate controversy. Roadplates.com, a company with a storage facility three miles down the road from Gillette, donated its space and services to store the 240 cardboard boxes stuffed with 300 turquoise rally towels each. On Wednesday Barstool gave out 60,000 of the towels to volunteers to distribute to other fans. The remaining 10,000 will be handed out from Barstool’s RV at a car dealership near the stadium but off of Patriots property. Barstool is calling the stunt #OperationClownFace.
Back in February, Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia walked off the plane the day after New England’s Super Bowl 51 win wearing a Barstool turquoise shirt with the Goodell clown-nose image on it. Five months later Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported that Goodell is still upset by that move.
Outsiders might view the whole thing as petty—from Patricia’s public endorsement of the image to Goodell’s apparent inability get past it to the stunt by Patriots fans who can’t let Deflategate go even after perhaps the greatest victory in Super Bowl history. “This idea was really based on the ongoing story that Goodell was actually bothered by the shirt,” says Barstool founder Dave Portnoy. “All Patriot fans despise Goodell. It’s not like time has healed wounds.”
Portnoy says “literally thousands” of Patriots fans responded to Barstool’s call for fan volunteers to help distribute the towels—it took just an hour for the 60,000 towels to be handed out on Wednesday. Portnoy and Co. are relying on their ad hoc distributors to pass them around while tailgating before the game. Each fan volunteer had to show his or her game ticket before picking up the towels, to show that they plan to be at Gillette.
The goal? “It’s an obnoxious color, turquoise, so if we could get the majority of the stadium waving these towels, we thought it would be pretty cool, primarily because it will piss [Goodell] off,” says Portnoy. “We are fairly comfortable in the fact that people really want to do it just so Goodell sees it. The hatred of Goodell is what is fueling all the volunteers and people who just want to make this happen.”
New England’s version of Pittsburgh’s Terrible Towel? Portnoy envisions a sea of turquoise, fans waving them every time the Patriots score or have a big play. If Portnoy succeeds in his goal to get 70 percent of the stadium to wave the towels, it will be hard for NBC’s cameras not to pick up on it and show the world #OperationClownFace.
Even if the mission doesn’t land on TV screens across America, Portnoy is fine with that. He says only cares about one man’s reaction. “The added exposure—that’s not what we’re looking for. We just hate Roger Goodell, and if we can get 70 percent of the stadium waving it, I know he knows what it is, and it’s just a victory for Barstool and Pats fans.”
At about 7:30 p.m.,Goodell walked out of the Southeast entrance at Gillette Stadium and stood in the corner of the field for about 13 minutes, the majority of which he spent talking to Chiefs owner Clark Hunt. The stadium was about half full at the time, and there were a series of boos and chants of, “Roger sucks!"
Before the commissioner walked out on the field, The MMQB spoke to Patriots fans to gauge their feelings on Goodell’s return to Foxborough.
Chris Corkery has been painting this sign outside his home a few miles from Gillette Stadium for about 10 years. It’s not always about Goodell, but today, there was only one message he wanted share. Roger, see you next year. "Nothing like being a Pats fan," he says.
“We talked about this on the car ride here. We don’t really give a s--- about what happens because we won the f---ing Super Bowl. The fact that he showed up and he is not letting Gillette show his face, he wants to do his pregame s--- early and wants to dip out, that is f---ed up. I am so over Deflategate because we won the Super Bowl. I don’t give a sh-- that Tom Brady was suspended, I don’t give a sh-- about any of that, because we won the Super Bowl. But it is absolute B.S. that it is tradition for the commissioner to do the ceremony and be up on the screen and he can’t handle a little backlash.” — Dillon Matthews
“He should just go stand out there and let the crowd boo him and be done with it.” - John Benchsky
“Face the music, eat it and be over and done with it instead of hiding it.” — Kyle Benchsky
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