Roger Goodell turns 59 in February and this week NFL owners approved a contract for him that will keep Goodell running the NFL until 2023 when he’s 65.
By then, Goodell will have served a longer term as commissioner than his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue.
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Like Tagliabue, Goodell may never get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The hammer used annually to beat down the candidacy of the scholarly and dignified Tagliabue is that he not only dismissed the long-term threats of concussions, he actively worked to make sure players didn’t get the best treatment or information.
In 1994, Tagliabue bowed to pressure from New York Jets owner Leon Hess and put the Jets team doctor Elliott Pellman – a rheumatologist – in charge of concussion studies and protocol.
Tagliabue explained his decision, saying, “Hess said that [Pellman] was a hard worker, he was highly intelligent, he was a good organizer and he could work effectively with coaches and players and he was willing to stand up for the medical point of view and not be cowed. So I put Dr. Pellman in charge, knowing what his specialties were. It was truly based on track record that these men had with their teams and what I thought they could help us accomplish with internal change.”
That’s the job in a nutshell, isn’t it? You get paid a silly amount of money and get to pretend you’re in charge but really, the NFL Commissioner is the owner’s patsy and fall guy. Owners with the most sway are the ones with the biggest stores of money and seniority that own teams in vital markets with massive fanbases. Those are the ones that whisper in the commissioner’s ear and make him do his bidding.
So, Hess set up Tagliabue with Pellman and the concussion millstone is going to keep Tagliabue out of Canton. Tags can ruminate on that while looking out on whatever amazing view he now surveys in retirement.
Goodell’s reign will probably end the same. He’ll make more money in his 17 seasons as commissioner than Tom Brady will in 20 years as the best quarterback in the game. But the fat stacks of money will be part of the broader problem with Goodell’s image.
The mom-and-pop NFL presided over by the league’s first commissioner, Pete Rozelle, and Tagliabue was an old boy’s network in which the game itself was sanctified and the owner’s – with the exception of Al Davis – got along. The graft, string-pulling and Machiavellian moves were ignored by the media or kept out of sight. Protecting the golden goose seemed to be the priority.
Goodell’s installment was about making the goose as fat as possible. And he’s succeeded. The NFL’s salary cap in 2006 was $102 million. Now it’s almost $170M. The Patriots were worth $1.4 billion in 2006. They are worth $3.7B now.
The goose has cholesterol issues now. And hypertension.
On Goodell’s watch, the NFL brand, respect for the league’s decision-making and the public opinion of most NFL owners has taken a massive nosedive.
From Spygate to the 2010 and 2011 CBA mudwrestle to the 2012 NFL officials strike, Bountygate and Bullygate to the concussion settlement, to Deflategate to the abject mismanagement of domestic violence investigations, Goodell has made it so that whenever he utters his favorite word – “integrity” – gales of laughter ensue.
The NFL is less interesting and its product is less watchable than the NBA’s.
It’s hard to consume a game without mental intrusion on myriad fronts – player safety, officiating, declining level of play, which player is just back from which suspension/scandal, replay confusion. When a clean and competitive game ends, there’s a feeling of welcome surprise. “Well, that was enjoyable for a change.”
Ironically, as the debate over Goodell’s extension came into view thanks to Jerry Jones, Goodell was actually in the process of doing a laudable job of negotiating player protests during the national anthem.
Even if his ultimate aim was to get players to cut the crap so his owners would stop screaming in his ear, even if the NFL ultimately tried to buy off player compliance by writing a check, Goodell actually walked through the minefield pretty deftly.
He didn’t point any bayonets at players and make demands. He didn’t puff out his chest and act like he had the answers. It was unique in that, this time, it wasn’t Goodell who came out looking like a dolt.
But between now and 2023, Goodell’s going to have to go on a diplomatic spree to clean up his legacy. Owners are openly warring, TV ratings are stagnant or falling, the current Collective Bargaining Agreement runs out in 2021 and Goodell is still a Grade A bungler when it comes to investigations and discipline because of the boobs he’s surrounded himself with over the years.
His approval rating is approaching single digits.
And as of this week, the NFL signed up for six more years of the guy. They say you get what you pay for. In the case of NFL owners, they paid for a patsy instead of a leader. Someone who’d make them money, settle their scores and keep his mouth shut about where the league’s bodies are buried, That’s what they wanted. That’s what they’ve gotten.