Roger Goodell was waiting all afternoon in his hotel room in the suburbs of Chicago for a knock on his door.
The minutes went by as fast as it takes to explain the NFL’s catch rule.
What could be taking so long?
Downstairs in a ballroom, the 32 NFL owners were voting on a new commissioner to succeed Paul Tagliabue. It was Aug. 8, 2006. They were making Goodell, the executive vice president and chief operating office at the time, sweat it out. This was no rubber stamp.
Goodell was the prohibitive favorite among the five finalists to receive the required 22 votes, but after two ballots he had just 15, the league’s principal outside counsel Gregg Levy had 13 and three outside candidates combined for three and were eliminated from the process. Of course, Raiders owner Al Davis abstained. Finally, on the fifth ballot, Goodell received 23 votes and then Tagliabue encouraged the owners to make it unanimous in a show of solidarity and even Davis joined in to make it 32-0.
Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who pretty much had been Goodell’s campaign manager, then walked to the elevator to take the ride up to Goodell’s room. Goodell was Tagliabue’s right hand man and point man on so many crucial issues but seriously considered quitting the NFL — he started as a three-month public relations intern in 1982 and never left — if he lost out on the commissioner’s job. He had already been approached about other opportunities.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Goodell went to open the door.
“Thankfully, I just put my pants on,” Goodell joked back then.
As he walked into the ballroom downstairs with Rooney, he received a standing ovation as he shook hands — there were no babies to kiss — showing the political chops he learned well from his late father Charles, who had been a congressman in upstate New York when he was appointed United States Senator by Gov. Rockefeller after Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.
Thus began what has been the most profitable and popular but also the most tumultuous and controversial 10 years in NFL history:
On the plus side: Goodell inherited a business with $6 billion annual revenues in 2006 and has grown that into what’s projected to be right around $14 billion in 2016 with a goal of $25 billion by 2027; ensured no work stoppages with a 10-year labor deal in 2011 through the 2020 season; influenced rule changes to make the game safer; made gains to help care for former players; pushed for technological advances to allow the game to be more accessible and enjoyable for fans.
“He took a dysfunctional labor situation and added certainty,” said Marc Ganis, the president of Sports Corp. Ltd, a consultant for many of the league’s business and stadium projects. “It’s the certainty that games will take place for 10 years, which is a lifetime. It’s the only certainty important to the fans.”
But it hasn’t all been wine and roses. There have been several troubling issues and controversial decisions that have turned into crater-sized potholes in Goodell’s decade in office from concussions and CTE denials to suicides by former players mentally impaired by playing football, including Hall of Famer Junior Seau. There’s been mishandling of domestic violence incidents and his questionable handling of Spygate, Bountygate and Deflategate. And the fact that too many players just don’t trust him.
“It’s pretty obvious from the players’ perspective there is really not much of a relationship between the commissioner and the players,” Damien Woody, an offensive lineman who played from 1999-2010 in the NFL, the last three with the Jets, told the Daily News. “The biggest problem is the lack of transparency, consistency, he’s just very combative. The relationship is very contentious. He’s done a great job as far as the owners are concerned growing the game — renegotiating the CBA to be more in line with what the owners want. And he’s made a lot of money. He’s basically a piñata for the owners. He takes a public bashing so the owners don’t have to.”
Goodell turned down a request to be interviewed for the Daily News’ 10-year anniversary series on his commissionership.
“That’s not where my focus is,” he said.
He was caught off guard when some of his top staffers threw him a little surprise party on Sept. 1 in a conference room at the league’s 345 Park Avenue headquarters to commemorate the day he succeeded Tagliabue just before the 2006 season opened.
So, as Ed Koch used to say, “How am I doin’?”
Well, it depends on whom you ask.
Almost all the owners — his bosses — love him. He has more than doubled the league’s revenue. The league’s media deals, including the network television contracts, bring in $7 billion per year. He helped put a team back in Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest market, with the return of the Rams this year from St. Louis, more than 20 years after they and the Raiders both left. Goodell oversaw a process that ultimately charged Rams owner Stan Kroenke a $550 million relocation fee, allowing him to move forward with his plans to build a $2.6 billion stadium on the grounds of the old Hollywood Park racetrack with space, of course, for the NFL Network. It is scheduled to open in 2019.
He has made wealthy men wealthier while becoming an incredibly wealthy man himself. He now pulls in around $35 million-$40 million per year, depending on the year, more than enough for a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones to drown out the boos he receives at the draft every year.
The marching order he gave himself 10 years ago was to protect the shield, the symbol of the NFL.
Along the way, he has become perhaps the most unpopular commissioner among fans and players in the history of sports. As soon as he is spotted on the stage to open the draft, whether in New York the last few years it was held at Radio City, or the last two years in Chicago and certainly next year in Philadelphia — the booing capital of the world — he hears it worse than Bryce Harper at Citi Field.
Giants co-owner John Mara, who is a Goodell confidante, calls it a “little unsettling” to see the face of their league treated so rudely.
“I don’t like seeing him getting booed at the draft or anywhere else he goes,” he said. ‘He’s got thick skin and deals with it pretty well. I don’t think any of us particularly like that. Then when we look at the job he’s doing — long-term labor deal, long-term television contracts, interest in our game is as strong as it’s ever been — he’s been the leader through all of that. We all accept the fact that he may be unpopular with certain segments of the public. But he’s doing the job he was hired to do.”
Even so, through the first month of the season, the NFL’s immense popularity took the first major hit of the Goodell era. Television ratings of the four networks broadcasting games were down an astounding 11%. Why? The league is scrambling for answers. The must-watch presidential election season is the most popular theory. Also, for the first time since Peyton Manning came into the NFL in 1998, and Tom Brady became a starter early in the 2001 season, neither were on the field. Manning retired in March and Brady was suspended the first four games. That’s a lot of star power sitting at home. Has the league reached the point of oversaturating the market with games on Sunday and also Monday and Thursday nights? In addition, there’s the possibility of viewer backlash from the national anthem protests started this summer by 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The decrease in the television numbers must concern Goodell and the owners because the networks and advertisers who invest so much money in the product are not getting the viewership they anticipated.
Goodell has an image problem, for sure. He recently hired Joe Lockhart, who was the press secretary during part of Bill Clinton’s presidential administration, to help carve out a new narrative. He has admitted mistakes: Initially giving Ray Rice just a two-game suspension for domestic violence.
He has refused to admit others: Giving Brady a four-game suspension for Deflategate after spending $5 million on the Wells Report. A league attorney later admitted in court the NFL had no concrete evidence that Brady either knew about or ordered the deflation of footballs in the 2015 AFC Championship Game.
“I think he’s done an excellent job as commissioner,” Mara said. “It’s a very difficult job. Every decision that you make is scrutinized a thousand times over. He’s certainly had some missteps along the way. He would be the first one to admit that, but if you ask the 32 owners in the league to evaluate his performance, I think he would get very high grades. We’re hoping he stays on for as long as he wants.”
Goodell’s contract expires in March of 2019. That’s two more seasons after this one and one season before the labor deal expires. It would not be all that surprising if he tries to get a labor extension done with the NFLPA prior to the expiration of his contract and then decides to leave the NFL and retreat to his home in Bronxville to contemplate his next move. He is 57 years old.
If Goodell elects to move on, here’s one name to keep in mind as his successor: Brian Rolapp, a Harvard Business School graduate whom Goodell named president and CEO of the NFL Network and executive vice president-media in 2014. He joined the NFL from NBC in 2003.
Drew Brees and Goodell were roommates on a USO tour visiting troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008. They became good friends and hugged whenever they saw each other. When Brees won the Super Bowl MVP by defeating the Colts following the 2009 season, Goodell looked like a proud papa.
Now, as they say, don’t invite them to the same dinner party.
Brees, along with Brady and Peyton Manning, were among the 10 named plaintiffs in the antitrust lawsuit against the NFL after owners locked them out in the offseason in 2011. After the ’11 season, the Bountygate story broke and Brees’ mentor and coach Sean Payton was suspended by Goodell for the entire 2012 season, wasting a year of Brees’ career.
Brees has been very critical of the way Goodell has handled disciplining players.
“Too many times, I’d say especially over the last few years, a punishment has been handed down and nobody has really seen the evidence except for those in the league office — supposedly,” Brees said during the Ray Rice scandal two years ago. “So decisions were made in kind of a, ‘Hey, trust us.’ But did the public see any of the facts? Did the accused see any of the facts? In most cases, no.”
Tagliabue, brought into the Bountygate case by Goodell to hear the appeals, overturned the player suspensions, but backed up the investigation’s finding of wrongdoing, that the Saints had been targeting players.
So many players have taken shots at Goodell over the last few years you actually need a scorecard and roster to keep track. Brees is the most visible and respected, making anti-Goodell comments only because Brady has resisted any urge and refrained from criticizing the commissioner.
Brady’s father, however, found it difficult to restrain himself. He actually called a Bay Area radio station last September to admonish a host who had called his son a liar two days after a judge in New York overturned Brady’s suspension.
“The only person that’s testified under oath in this is Tom Brady,” Brady Sr. said. “We know Goodell is lying. He lied in the Ray Rice case, he lied in this case, he lied in the Adrian Peterson case. How many times do you need to know this guy is a flaming liar?”
Brady, the quarterback, put Brady, the father, on notice shortly after he made some emotional comments when the Wells Report came out in May of 2015, and then again issued a friendly gag order after calling Goodell out on the radio.
“Dad,” he said. “You’re not doing me any favors.”
Consider some memorable comments from Goodell’s Grumpy Gang.
“If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn’t. I hate him and will never respect him.”-Steelers linebacker James Harrison, 2011
“DO NOT SERVE THIS MAN.’’ — Sign with picture of Goodell on the door of a Miami restaurant owned by Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was initially suspended for the entire 2012 season in the Bountygate scandal.
“I want a new commissioner to lead my league. I want a new commissioner to go out there and say the things and be that leader because right now Roger Goodell is not that and I don’t think he can ever be that.”-Former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi in 2014 after Goodell held a news conference about Rice.
When Goodell took the job, he considered himself player-friendly. He was more personable than Tagliabue and more like his hero, Pete Rozelle. He still hands out bro hugs to players when they come on stage after they are selected in the draft even if the next time he sees them might be in his office — not unlike getting called to the principal’s office — being informed how many games he’s suspending them. Earlier in his tenure, Goodell showed a more compassionate and softer side. That has dissipated over the years as the issues have mounted.
“I think to a large extent the Goodell the public sees is not the real Roger Goodell,” Mara said. “His demeanor at press conferences comes across as being a little pompous or a little arrogant and that’s just not who he is.”
Woody has spent time with Goodell and likes him personally. He just has issues with how he’s gone about his business. Woody played with Brady, but didn’t defend him in Deflategate. Brady destroying his cellphone was among the things that convinced Woody that Brady was not innocent. But he thought the investigation was “sloppy” and the punishment was severe and without a good explanation.
“Four games for that?” Woody said. “I understand you want to suspend him a game, maybe two. But four games? That’s a quarter of your season.”
Or two more games than Goodell initially gave Rice for knocking his then-fiancé unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator.
Is the vitriol directed at Goodell fair?
He didn’t create the concussion problem. He inherited it from Tagliabue and before him Rozelle and before him Bert Bell. Was the NFL slow to react to recognizing the connection between concussions, head injuries and the long-term well-being of its players? Was the league and teams not forthcoming with players about the dangers of head trauma and the potential impact on their post-football quality of life?
Goodell has put a premium on health and safety and has enacted a laundry list of rule changes, but this is a violent collision sport played by huge, fast men with bad intentions. The issue is the NFL was in denial for so long and employed doctors as their medical advisors for too long who downplayed concussions that the league can’t shake the image of being uncaring. Imagine Wayne Chrebet was put back into a 2003 game against the Giants after he had already suffered a concussion? He returned to the field in a game in Dallas after taking a hit to the head in 1999 and being able to see with only one eye.
Twice in his career Chrebet suffered concussions on consecutive weekends and never thought twice about returning to the game. Nobody stopped him, either.
That all happened before Goodell was running the NFL, although he was a high-level executive. The concussion protocols put in place the last few years by Goodell would have prevented Chrebet from going back in until he was cleared. The league announced in July teams can be disciplined with fines and a loss of draft picks if they don’t follow concussion protocol.
The last concussion of Chrebet’s career ended it at the age of 32 in a 2005 game against the Chargers.
Like Woody, Chrebet has a good relationship with Goodell. Unlike Woody, he’s had a tough time from the after-effects of concussions following his retirement and now speaks much more deliberately than he did in the locker room. He’s had some memory issues but doesn’t blame the NFL.
“When you play football, you know what you are doing,” Chrebet said in a 2013 interview with the Daily News. “It’s a violent game. It’s controlled violence. If you don’t want to get hit, don’t play football.”
Woody, a tackle for the Jets, played at 327 pounds, said he had two documented concussions, but has no physical problems from his long career trying to move large men out of the way.
“I went into this thing with my eyes wide open,” he said. “I know I’m playing a violent sport. I know if I’m banging against men the same size and with the same athletic skills as me, there is a possibility I could sustain long-term damage. But you know what? That’s the risk I wanted to take. It’s common sense that if you’re playing a contact sport there is going to be some type of residual effect.”
Is he worried about CTE? “No,” he said. “I would do this 10 out of 10 times.”
The NFL came under fire in a Congressional report in May that said the league tried to improperly influence how a $30 million grant for head trauma research was spent. The NFL denied it. Since 2013, the league has held a competition among scientists for large research grants to come up with methods and equipment to make the game safer. Two weeks ago, the NFL pledged to spend $100 million to fund research for the prevention, diagnosis and then treatment of concussions.
But for a sport that takes in several billions, it’s still a small sum.
“The NFL has been a leader on health and safety in many ways, and we’ve made some real strides in recent years,” Goodell said. “But when it comes to addressing head injuries in our game, I’m not satisfied, and neither are the owners of the 32 clubs. We can and will do better.”
The league’s settlement of a class action concussion lawsuit filed by more than 5,000 retired players could cost $1.4 billion over a 65-year period. The agreement could benefit 21,000 retired players, but an appeal in August to the Supreme Court by the family of the late Buffalo Bills running back Cookie Gilchrist has delayed the payouts. Players could receive up to $5 million each.
The future of football and the future of the NFL depends on making the game safer. Goodell didn’t make this problem. He just has to fix it.
“How do you become proactive instead of reactive on something you inherited?” said Rick Burton, the David Falk professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. “I doubt anyone could do much better. The fans, media, sponsors, the players, they want solutions to something that is imbedded in how the game is played.”
Ray Rice punching his soon-to-be wife in a hotel elevator in Atlantic City and the lenient two-game suspension was the start of the anti-Goodell movement that led to fans and media calling for his job. The momentum has been impossible to stop.
Goodell agonized in the weeks after giving Rice just two games in a late July announcement but felt boxed in by league precedent, which was no excuse, since it was so lacking. He admitted his mistake and promised tougher standards. When the second elevator video surfaced, five weeks after Goodell’s initial discipline, on the first Monday of the 2014 season, the Ravens cut Rice and Goodell suspended him indefinitely. The suspension was later overturned on appeal, although Rice has not played in the league since.
Goodell didn’t commit the crime. Rice did. But it was Goodell who went on trial. Rice never did. It was the low point of Goodell’s 10 years. He has a wife and twin daughters. In no way was he condoning domestic violence, but the leniency he showed Rice had bullets flying in his direction from everywhere.
He later alienated Patriots owner Robert Kraft, once his closest ally, after suspending Brady four games. Kraft considers Brady his fifth son and took it personally that Goodell was so rough on him for something Brady swore to Kraft he did not do.
Ironically, the night before that AFC Championship Game, Goodell attended a party at Kraft’s house in Brookline, Mass.
When the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in July voted not to rehear the case and Brady elected not to pursue the Supreme Court, guaranteeing his suspension would remain reinstated following a pro-NFL ruling in April, it elicited a biting response from Kraft.
“The league’s investigation into a football pressure matter was flawed and biased from the start, and has been discredited nearly unanimously by accredited academics and scientists,” he said. “The penalty imposed by the NFL was unprecedented, unjust and unreasonable, especially given that no empirical or direct evidence of any kind showed Tom did anything to violate league rules prior to, during or after the 2015 AFC Championship Game. What Tom has had to endure throughout this 18-month ordeal has been, in my opinion, as far removed from due process as you could ever expect in this country.”
If the Patriots host the AFC title game, Goodell should not bother checking his in-box for his e-vite to another Kraft bash. In fact, Goodell didn’t attend any games in Foxborough last season and it’s unlikely he will be there anytime soon.
When it was suggested to Goodell before training camp that the courts had reestablished his powers under the CBA and it was time to let it go with Brady after 18 months, he was not at all interested in compromise.
That was fine with the owners who believed Goodell went too soft on Bill Belichick and the Patriots in the 2007 Spygate case, which ended with Kraft calling Belichick a “schmuck.” Was Deflategate an opportunity for Goodell to make up for not suspending Belichick, which he regretted? That’s one theory.
Goodell does not have to worry about the owners having his back. In the 2016 Forbes list, 24 of the 32 teams are listed with a valuation of at least $2 billion. The Cowboys are first at $4.2 billion. The Bills are last at $1.5 billion. The Giants are third at $3.1 billion and the Jets are seventh at $2.75 billion.
“As far as I can tell, he’s more than satisfied the interests and demands of the ownership,” Burton said. “And that’s his job. That’s the audience he serves. That’s what keeps him the commissioner.”
For perspective: When Robert Tisch bought 50% of the Giants from Tim Mara in 1991, he paid $75 million, meaning the team was valued at $150 million. In 25 years, the Giants value has increased by just under $3 billion. Woody Johnson purchased the Jets in 2000 for $635 million. In 16 years, and with no Super Bowls, the value has gone up by just over $2 billion.
It’s a good business if you can afford the membership fees.
He’s helped make the players rich. The average salary is $2.1 million.
“How he’s been as commissioner for the public and the players and the sponsors, he’s probably been a mixed bag at best,” Burton said. “You can find a lot of people who don’t like decisions he’s made.”
He made the owners even richer. Isn’t that what it’s ultimately all about for them?
“I think that’s bull—-,” Mara said. “It’s so much more than that — the initiatives we have on player safety and research, increasing retirees benefits, all aspects of our business and the game on the field. It’s at the point where just about anything he does continues to draw criticism and that’s unfortunate. I know his heart is in the right place and the people that are in this business realize what a good job he’s done.”
The NFL would have been much different if it was room service and not Rooney knocking on the door. At the very least he could have brought him those noise-cancelling headphones.
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