Roger Goodell: Is He the NFL's Biggest Villain or Its Knight in Shining Armor?

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Roger Goodell: Is He the NFL's Biggest Villain or Its Knight in Shining Armor?
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

It has become cliche these days to paint NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as the league's biggest villain.

But is that fair, or even accurate? Or is it more in the vicinity of fugghedaboutit?

In little more than five years Roger Goodell has earned a reputation as a calculated, micromanaging bad-ass, laser-focused on molding the NFL into his image.

He has also earned a reputation as an open-minded, empathetic leader with a good ear.

Goodell ascended to the throne of NFL Commissioner in August 2006 after spending nearly 25 years with the league.

Cutting his teeth under former commissioners Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue, Goodell has a lot in common with both, but is clearly his own man.

Goodell has certainly had his hands full over the last five years—from tackling realignment to collective bargaining to TV contracts, to what could prove to be the native New Yorker's lasting legacy: his personal conduct policy.

He might be the most popular commissioner ever among NFL owners...and perhaps the least popular with fans, many who believe he is turning the league soft with his almost evangelical mission to improve player safety.

Indeed, it's difficult to assess the work Goodell has done as commish.

You could tout the fact that the NFL is more profitable and more popular than ever—a $9 billion a year business that owns most of the top 50 highest-rated television events in history.

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But your friend at the corner of the bar could argue that a monkey with a rubber stamp could have achieved the same results given the talent and leadership that exists in the NFL.

You could look at Goodell's handling of the most recent NFL crisis—the New Orleans' Saints bounty scandal—as a testament to his humanity, a leader of billionaires choosing safety and security over profits and image.

But your wisecracking brother-in-law, the guy who always roots for the out-of-state team just to get your goat, could argue that Goodell's alleged "safety first" pledge is really about safely protecting the NFL from litigation.

You could laud Goodell for his no-holds-barred take on coaching scandals, from the aforementioned Saints debacle to the New England Patriots' Spygate. (The Redskins/Cowboys salary cap overreach left out on purpose).

In 2007, Goodell laid the hammer down on the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick, fining the team the maximum $500,000 and taking the team's first-round draft pick. And, of course, he suspended Saints head coach Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season as part of the toughest team sanctions in league history.

But the guy who keeps burning you deep in your heavy-handed games of two-hand touch, he could challenge you on that, claiming that Goodell cherry picks his targets and looks the other way when it's in the league's best interests.

And, finally, you could commend Goodell for instituting the NFL's first personal conduct policy in 2007 in an effort to "protect the shield" from embarrassment and ridicule.

No doubt that at the time, the Cincinnati Bengals roster resembled a holding cell at county more than an NFL franchise, and Goodell's first two suspensions—Pacman Jones and Chris Henry—let the players know he meant business.

 

But your Fantasy Football pal could counter that Goodell should worry more about players getting their fair share at the bargaining table than getting a fair shake when it comes to fallout over an incident that he deems "detrimental to the integrity" of the league.

Indeed, if there has been one constant in Goodell's decision-making it is that the owners always come up smelling like roses, roses swaddled in Benjamins that is.

Your first reaction to that statement might be, "duh."

You might say, "well, obviously he takes care of the owners, because the owners hired him."

Yes they did. But sometimes the machine needs to be protected from itself. Sometimes pandering to the short-sightedness of ownership will come back to haunt you. Sometimes.

A year ago, as the 2011 NFL draft approached, Goodell was front and center—his legacy, some might say, resting on his ability to save the 2011 season from a lockout, or more specifically from owners' greed.

Goodell managed to craft a compromise, to save the season, and bring labor peace for another decade.

So, is Goodell the NFL's greatest villain? Or is he the knight in shining armor, appearing suddenly when disaster seems imminent?

 

Perhaps that will be better answered after he finishes out the balance of his new contract.

I'll judge him on his ability to forge the next great compromise: Marrying the NFL that fans love to see—the big hits, colorful characters and powerhouse franchises—with the NFL some say he is on course to deliver, one that looks more like a flag football game at a George Tooker exhibit.

If Goodell can navigate that minefield, if he can protect players and profits without turning the NFL into the PGA, he will have earned his keep.

He will never be Pete Rozelle, or Joseph Carr for that matter.

But he will have tackled the league's biggest current challenge with aplomb if he manages to keep the game's fiery heart in tact while becoming the thinking man's commissioner.

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