In the recent days, I reached out to a few friends and players in the NFL regarding Roger Goodell and received a clear, resounding distaste for his tactics and general decision-making.
Let’s face it: The guy has a strong propensity for infuriating the men who actually risk life and limb on a daily basis. Though Goodell never intended to generate such visceral reactions from players, this is how things are.
Over the last couple of years, players from all over the league have dished out an unprecedented amount of venom the commissioner’s way. This list includes highly respected veterans such as Troy Polamalu, Drew Brees, Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs, Scott Fujita, Roddy White, Jay Feely, Eric Winston, James Harrison and Reggie Bush, just to name a few.
But how did Goodell’s disconnect with players get this out of control?
Goodell became the commissioner of the NFL on Sept. 1, 2006, but the origins of his unpopularity really began to take hold with his unusually harsh fines and suspensions in the name of player safety.
The 2010 season was especially confusing for defensive players, as plays and hits long perceived as highlights suddenly became frowned upon and ultimately finable by league officials. Often times these very plays would go unflagged by refs during the game, yet players would be unpleasantly surprised by a letter in their locker later in the week.
Pittsburgh’s James Harrison suddenly and without much clarity became the poster boy for everything Goodell wanted to eradicate from the sport.
According to an article published by ESPN’s Jeffri Chadiha back in May, “Harrison is the most prominent target of this new NFL—the five-time Pro Bowl linebacker has been fined six times for a total of $125,000 and was suspended one game…”
As some of you may recall, many players found this level of punishment alarming and unsettling. Unsurprisingly, nobody was more reactionary than Harrison himself, who had this to say in a Men’s Journal interview:
What I tried to explain to Goodell, but he was too stupid to understand, is that dudes crouch when you go to hit them. With Massaquoi, my target area was his waist and chest, but he lowered himself at the last possible second and I couldn't adjust to his adjustment. But Goodell, who's a devil, ‘ain't’ hearing that. Where's the damn discretion, the common sense?
We sent them a tape of 27 hits from games that following week – 27 hits like mine or worse – but none of 'em got flagged or fined. And what'd they say to us? Nothing, not a peep. So I guess they ain't fouls unless we do 'em.
I slammed Vince Young on his head and paid five grand, but just touched Drew Brees and that was 20. You think black players don't see this (explitive) and lose all respect for Goodell?
In reality, though, the discontent for Goodell transcends race or any isolated organization.
Then, just as players were trying to cope with the new “Goodell version” of the NFL, the drama surrounding the labor dispute and new CBA negotiations unfolded.
As a player lockout began to seem imminent, Goodell set off across the country to visit with players and get a feel for the player perspective.
The feedback and questions he received were so hostile that he actually had to cut his tour of the organizations short. Browns linebacker Scott Fujita said this about his interaction with the players:
I was hopeful we'd get some more answers, I think he came in unprepared for how educated the players were going to be. A lot of guys were concerned about it afterward, and I think kind of shocked for how unprepared he was for these kinds of questions.
Lineman Eric Winston, who joined the Chiefs after six seasons in Houston, had this to say in regard to Goodell and the lockout:
You can't have it both ways. You can't say you want to help the players when, as the lockout showed, you're really a mouthpiece for the owners. As players, everything is really black and white for us. And during the lockout, we learned that even if he wants to be neutral in some ways, it's clear that he's not.
Once resolved, Goodell was never really acknowledged or given much credit by the players. Instead, Patriots and Giants owners Robert Kraft and John Mara were the ones praised by the players as the main reasons for the CBA agreement.
Throughout this lockout, Goodell was widely heard lobbying for an 18-game season, which would extend the regular season by two games. This came across by players and fans as hypocritical to Goodell’s preaching about his priority on player safety.
In regard to player safety, most players seemed to see right through to Goodell’s true priorities.
Arizona Cardinals player representative Jay Feely said this in response to that:
A lot of players don't believe he has their best interests at heart, if he did, he wouldn't have 200-plus workmen's compensation complaints caught up in the appeals process. He wouldn't be dismissing disability claims right off the bat. There are so many things that happen behind the scenes that fans don't know about that make players distrust him.
There's a general distrust for him.
In a previous article of mine that addressed Goodell’s inconsistencies with player safety, I pointed this out:
Unfortunately, no matter how much the commissioner would like you to think he's making it one, he really isn't. He has rigorously denied player claims for disability and/or workers' compensation. If Goodell's interest were really geared toward player safety, he would focus much more of his attention on higher standards for helmet technology, as well as overall improvements in equipment and playing surfaces, rather than screwing up the continuity of the game with terrible rule changes and unprecedented fines.
There has been some attention given to the dire need for improved helmets, but the implementation of these available advancements is moving slow enough to indicate just how important this matter is to Goodell. Perhaps exclusivity rights obtained by Riddell, naming it the official helmet of the NFL, factors into the process and its inefficiency in moving toward safer models.
Just think of how many press conferences we have heard of Goodell talking about the rule changes and the fining of players, and how little we have heard him talk about equipment advancements. Clearly the disparity in this ratio is glaring.
Now Goodell is advocating expanding the number of playoff teams from 12 to 14 or 16 teams. These changes are designed primarily to generate more revenue for owners and the league.
More playoff teams would mean more playoff games. That just so happens to be games that garner unchallenged TV ratings. Further, they’re played for significantly less money by the players who typically only receive a mere fraction of their regular salaries.
The hiring of replacement refs throughout the first quarter of the season was another example of just how little Goodell actually was concerned about player safety. The replacement ref debacle is an obvious stain on the NFL’s reputation.
Then came the infamous Bountygate scandal, where Goodell took it upon himself to "law down" like never before seen in league history.
Goodell attempted to make harsh examples of the Saints players and coaches by suspending head coach Sean Payton for the entire year. Defensive coordinator Greg Williams was suspended indefinitely and may never be allowed to return to football.
Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was the most severely punished of the four players suspended. He was initially suspended for the entire season, which was later reduced after arbitration.
The Bountygate incident really seemed to drive something home for the players. It became clear that the commissioner simply had too much power at his disposal.
Regardless of which side a player stood on the bounty issue, they still all seemed to agree that Goodell was wielding a dangerous amount of authority.
Lance Briggs had this to say about it on ESPN’s the Carmen, Jurko & Harry Show:
It's like a dictatorship, a monarchy, and he's sitting at top and there's no veto power, there's nothing, its judge, jury, executioner. It seems unfair.
While in an interview, Scott Fujita said “It's just a power-run-amok situation, obviously, the scope of the conduct-detrimental powers that have been afforded him are broad, but there has been clear abuse of power that has been afforded to him.”
Most recently, Goodell’s punishments and decisions have been second-guessed by his mentor and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who he ironically appointed to oversee a panel that would give a third-party perspective on the bounty system and the punishments dished out.
The selection of Tagliabue was frowned upon by the NFLPA, yet Tagliabue surprisingly ruled against Goodell’s punishments. Goodell has since said that he "fundamentally disagrees" with the man he personally elected to give an opinion on the matter.
This spawned comments by Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who happens to be one of the most respected men in the NFL. In a press conference after practice on Wednesday, he said:
What I would like to see is a level of accountability on the part of the NFL and Commissioner Goodell in regards to mishandling of this entire situation, we as players hold ourselves and are held to a very strict code of conduct both on and off the field. We have to be accountable to that, as it should be, and I feel like they should be held to the same standards.
If someone would just come out in the league office and admit, `You know what? We could have handled this situation better,' it would go such a long way with both players and fans. People would really come around to realize what this thing was all about because right now the league office and Commissioner Goodell have very little to no credibility with us as players.
Vilma is currently in the process of filing a lawsuit against Goodell, claiming defamation of character.
Perhaps on some level, Goodell is simply caught in middle of a tough situation as the voice of 32 owners. But he has been on the forefront of a stern and unyielding campaign laced in mixed messages and completely detached from the desires of most players and fans.
The game of football is a sacred piece of American culture. Most people hate to see such careless displays of altering the game we all love.
In the wake of his controversial reign that could only be in its infancy, we are left to wonder just how much of a football fan Roger Goodell truly is. Have we mistakenly put the fate of our beloved sport in the hands of a greedy, power-hungry businessman who has seemingly lost sight of what makes this game special?
Sure, league revenue has gone up and a labor peace is guaranteed for the next 10 years, but his legacy could end up being “Goodell the terrible” rather than his intended “Goodell the savior.”