'I Don't Recognize This Roger': What Has Happened to Roger Goodell?

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterJune 8, 2018

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announces NFL team owners have reached agreement on a new league policy that requires players to stand for the national anthem or remain in the locker room during the NFL owner's spring meeting Wednesday, May 23, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
John Bazemore/Associated Press

Right now, the NFL could use a leader.

It needs someone who could forcefully and convincingly tell everyone what the NFL stands for. That the NFL won't be bullied by anyone. That its players are decent and hard-working men who earned their Lamborghinis and give their time and money to the less fortunate. It could use a Steve Kerr.

Or, it could use the old Roger Goodell.

Goodell came into the league as an ass-kicker. Now, he's an ass-kisser.

As one longtime team official told me recently, "I don't recognize this Roger."

It's the same sentiment Eagles defensive lineman Chris Long expressed Wednesday (via Zack Rosenblatt of NJ Advance Media) when asked why Goodell hasn't defended the players against President Donald Trump's attacks. 

"I don't speak for the commissioner," he said. "If he doesn't want to stand up for the players, that's not really my business."

"I know my teammates are great men," he added. "There's men of faith in this locker room. There's men who serve their communities. There's men who have a lot and give back to people with a lot less. They don't have to do that at all."

That would be easy for Goodell to say. But he hasn't. And he won't. Because he's scared.

You have to understand this: There was a time when calling Goodell scared was unthinkable.

But now, we've heard nothing from Goodell as the NFL has undergone perhaps one of the most blistering attacks on it ever. Goodell and all of his cronies have run scared as Trump has played them for suckers.

How did this happen? Where did Goodell get lost?

Not existentially, or wondering why his GPS seems broken, but as a person?

This just doesn't seem like the same Goodell, who was selected in August 2006 to succeed Paul Tagliabue.

The Goodell I knew when he first took over would not have disappeared in the wake of Trump's attacks on the league. He would have told the president to go kick rocks. If any owner tried to stop him from fighting back, he would have told that owner to kick rocks, too.

Susan Walsh/Associated Press

Now? Goodell is hiding.

He used to be feared and unintimidated by anyone or any situation. He was tough, a bulldog.

In 2007, he suspended Wade Wilson, then the quarterbacks coach of the Cowboys, for five games and fined him $100,000 for purchasing human growth hormone, which Wilson said was for diabetes. He hit players like Ben Roethlisberger and Pacman Jones hard with suspensions. He policed on-field conduct more than previous NFL commissioners. He took a first-round pick from the Patriots for Spygate.

Goodell was an enforcer, so much so that some owners hated his power. They believed he wielded it unfairly (which he did at times).

He took on the media, the union and politicians who thought the NFL was too greedy. He defended the league constantly at every opportunity, and he was fearless, even obnoxious, in doing so. 

What has happened to that man?

The answer isn't easy. Part of it, I think, is money. The NFL has gone from being a league that loved money (like we all do) to one obsessed over it—over making as much of it as possible. Even if doing so compromised its standing and principles.

A few years ago, Tagliabue told GQ's Gabriel Sherman that he saw Goodell beginning to make "decisions only in economic terms," and at the expense of more important things, like the league's relationships. When you're obsessed with money, you do whatever it takes to protect it. You let authoritarian presidents take shots at you, and you cower because you don't want to mess with your piles of cash.

M. SPENCER GREEN/Associated Press

And at a cost. 

"There's a huge intangible value in peace," Tagliabue told Sherman. "There's a huge intangible value in allies." 

A series of scandals and poor decisions have weakened Goodell and lost him allies. As a result, he lost the sense of toughness that once served as a suit of armor.

The fear factor is gone. Trump senses this. He knows the NFL is now almost rudderless, so he can attack and it will bend to his will.

Goodell's shrinkage looks even worse when his actions and (non-words) are compared to the words of his NBA counterpart. Commissioner Adam Silver was asked before Game 3 of the NBA Finals for his reaction to LeBron James and Steph Curry saying their teams wouldn't attend any White House ceremony.

"My reaction, not to what they said, but that that's where we find ourselves here is sadness frankly," Silver said. "A bit of resignation. But I don't think it should take away from the fact that these players in our league, our coaches, are speaking out on issues that are important to them and important to society. I think, I encourage them to continue to do that and on top of that, maybe more importantly, look at the things they're doing in their communities."

Maybe Goodell and the NFL believe they should take the high road with Trump, that getting into the sewer only gets them dirty.

That isn't the Goodell from the past, though. The old Goodell would have had a lot to say.

What has happened to Goodell?

Once feared...now acting scared.


Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.