Roger Goodell: An Actual Look at His NFL Management (Thanks Anyway, Peter King)

Caleb GarlingCorrespondent IFebruary 3, 2011

Smile for the camera now
Smile for the camera nowJeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

If you want to read an article epitomizing lapdog journalism, read Peter King’s recent piece on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. It reads like Greta van Susteren doing a bio on Sarah Palin.

King goes on about Goodell’s kindness, his connection to fans, his ability to make a hard deal with shrewd negotiations, his rapport with owners and players, even his knack for disarming drunken barflies.  A hard look at Goodell’s plans for preventing on-field brain damage? “Concussion” and “head injury” each appear once in almost 6,000 words. The impending labor dispute and lockout?  Roger vs The World—and he has only his beguiling soft-spoken demeanor to save himself (and the NFL). 

It’s absolute fluff—written so Peter King can continue receiving the best press access in the NFL.  These pieces are why I cancelled my SI subscription ten years ago and have visited five times since (now six). King and the rest of SI suffers from the basic conundrum of today’s hyper-journalism environment: Anger those you cover, lose your access.

It’s like journalism in Iran, except replace “access” with “ability to walk the streets freely.”

Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that the article made me think: as a longtime NFL fan, what do I think about Roger Goodell?  What are my impressions so far? As much as I love football, I hadn’t really stopped and thought about it.

King’s affectionate anecdote about Goodell being a safety officer in elementary school (totally serious) is the best place to start.  And not with regards to concussions; I’ve thought Goodell’s response to acknowledging the problem and taking concrete measures (not strange rules changes) has been tepid if not pathetic. That, I have thought about. Sensors in helmets? That’s like putting sensors in bulletproof vests. “Yep, he’s been shot alright!” The issue is prevention, not diagnosis. But prevention means controversial changes to the game itself, so the league is alligator arming them as long as possible.

But I mean safety officer in the context of…well…think back to the safety officers in your schools.  Every time I’ve been in a bar and seen Goodell muted on TV, I’ve thought “Oh boy. Sherriff’s in town.  Someone’s getting fined for something.” (Or “Did someone just whisper in Roger Goodell’s ear that his son got a DUI and now he’s trying to keep it together for the rest of this interview?”)

He has become the safety officer, but you know what he needs to be? Not a teacher (those are coaches), not the principal (those are owners). He needs to be The Superintendent. The scuffles on the playground are not his concern; he shouldn’t dignify them with his attention. Does tapping his foot and telling Chad Ocho Cinco that his shoes are non-regulation colors make him Commish-like?

No. It makes him dork-like. Superintendents don’t go on the evening news about a dress code violation. 

Other than Bad Newz Kennels, should every transgression by players generate one of his stiff interviews, recapping the “discussions in his office?” Even the real troublemakers like Pacman Jones or Tank Johnson—who absolutely need punishment— should deal with the Vice-President of Making Players Follow An Obscene Amount Of Rules. Let that office levy the fines and give statements to the press. 

Goodell doesn’t need to constantly show he’s working with the bad apples. That’s not his job. If a player has serious behavioral issues—which nine times out of ten, as any psychiatrist will testify, ironically comes back to wanting attention in the first place—is the best antidote for the problem the Commissioner’s attention?  It just validates the behavior. There is no reason to have fans equating the Office of the Commissioner with the Occurrence of Idiocy. Keep above the fray, focused on settling the impending labor dispute and exporting the NFL to other countries. The big picture stuff. 

Even during SpyGate, a situation that did need his presence because it dealt with a potentially systemic issue, why would he now say, three years later, “I feel like I was deceived” in regards to Bill Belichick’s inadequate apology about the whole incident? I can only assume that this was the point in the interview when he and Peter King opened a bottle of merlot and wept about tough times. 

So, my first conclusion on the Goodell era was, “Roger-baby, since I know you’re reading, act like you’ve been there before, man. You scream ‘I sweat the small stuff and am a little too delicate for a league predicated on toughness.’ ”

But then I thought about Goodell a little more and started considering Commissioners from other leagues. Bud Selig rarely interferes with players, even when they’re doing copious amounts of drugs in his locker rooms.  (He interferes even less with people making baseball boring.) David Stern prefers taking care of dirty business behind the curtain. And Gary Bettman has bigger things to worry about, like reminding people what hockey is. So Goodell seems to have chosen the path of the tough-love guy that’s a bit too dweeby for the job.

Then I began to smile, of course. 

I thought about Goodell’s stodgy interviews, and his lame statements, and players doing interviews discussing their time in his office, and the pundits and columnists having a field day with it—“This guy needs to get it together!”—and I started to have a strange moment.  Like when you finally are able to see the dinosaur in one of those annoying pictures in the mall.

This is exactly what the NFL wants. No, not because it’s important to have a Commish that cares, or even because the NFL, as a league body, cares about the proper justice. 

They are playing into the state of journalism; they need to own the news cycle. They are maintaining access.  If [player] is fined quietly, without fanfare, that night extra basketball highlights show up on SportsCenter.  If Goodell doesn’t issue another statement about his meeting with [player], Fox will run a story about off-season baseball moves. If the Commissioner of the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE doesn’t do an interview after [player]’s off-field incident, someone may remember people still play hockey in the remote sections of Canada only accessible on moose back.

Like Peter King to the NFL, the NFL only has so much access—to us. But unlike the days of Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue, the pool of access is massive.  I don’t have to name the methods one can obtain sports news; you obviously know about the Internet. 

So why not dignify every incident with the Commissioner’s glare and snatch a headline while we’re at it?  The NFL knows we’re more likely to watch a game involving a bad apple in the hopes he gets laid out or we’ll catch another incident live. Let’s reinforce what a bad apple he is by having The Commish come down on him—while everyone forgets a little more about the World Series, basketball and that awesome game the cavemen used to play on ice with sticks. 

As long as we can’t recall a reason to change the channel, we’ll keep tuning in each Sunday to catch the latest in advertising. Perhaps Goodell is acting like a Superintendent after-all.


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