And the Impending Doom of Commissioner Roger S Goodell
Roger S Goodell, son of former U.S. Senator Charles Ellsworth Goodell, has worked for only one organization in his 32 years since graduating from college: the National Football League. Appointed as Commissioner in 2006, Goodell has overseen what has possibly been the most lucrative growth period in any sport’s history—the NFL’s ratings, international popularity, and financial power have soared to unprecedented heights under Goodell’s watchful eye. Yet as another season begins, pro football’s media coverage is dominated by off-field concerns, and the Most Powerful Man in Sports finds himself fighting for his job.
The Ray Rice scandal was the turning point for many fans and media representatives, but the NFL’s issues go far deeper. At least seven issues need to be immediately addressed by NFL owners and executives. The question is not whether these issues will be resolved, but how—and whether Goodell will remain in his familiar offices long enough to witness his own redemption.
Here, Fidelity faithful, are the seven most pressing issues facing the NFL. In a subsequent article, I describe how to fix all seven and save pro football… and a good bit of America.
1. Violence, Concussions and Player Safety
For over 100 years, football’s inherent violence has been the source of public concern, often being compared to gladiatorial combats in ancient Rome. In 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt addressed growing concerns regarding college football by announcing, “I believe in rough games, and rough, manly sports. I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.”
But football was quickly becoming fatal—19 deaths were reported from college football games in 1905 alone—and the POTUS had to step in. Roosevelt recommended a number of rule changes, from legalizing the forward pass to initiating the neutral zone, which together slowly reduced life-threatening injuries and re-invented the game into its current form. Essentially, the Rough Rider enacted changes that maintained the “manly” spirit of the game while increasing player safety.
A century later, football’s violence is unquestioned, fans are again becoming “former fans,” and critics are calling for a mass exodus. Every Sunday, teams’ injured reserve lists include concussions, torn ligaments, and broken bones, and the long-term health effects are even more concerning. In the 2012 Bountygate Scandal, the New Orleans Saints admitted to offering bounties for knocking opposing players out. Each season, coaches and players confess that the new Thursday Night Football game does not allow for sufficient rest and recovery from the previous weekend—yet they go on playing anyway.
On the heels of yesterday’s announcement that nearly one-third of retired pros will develop permanent cognitive problems, the time has come for a massive re-thinking of the game’s most fundamental rules. The single most pressing question for football owners, executives, media personnel and even casual fans, has become: How can we make the game immensely safer without sacrificing its essence and strategy?
2. Performance Enhancing Drugs
The use of performance enhancing drugs in football is not just an NFL concern—studies have indicated that between four to six percent of high school football players take anabolic steroids or other illegal substances. But pro football’s soft approach to PED’s, a three-strike policy to recurring offenders, allows players to take risks on consuming drugs that have may have contributed to multiple professionals’ deaths.
3. Off-Field Conduct
Of course, most of the recent media coverage has focused on NFL players’ off-field conduct. From former Ravens RB Ray Rice’s domestic violence toward his then-fiancée—which received only a two-game suspension from the NFL before the elevator video was “discovered”—to the weekend’s news that Vikings RB Adrian Peterson had been indicted on charges of child abuse for whipping his young son with tree branches, to marijuana-possession-related suspensions for Browns WR turned used-car dealer Josh Gordon, the NFL has never had such a peak in off-the-field incidents. Now, how the league handles these matters is critical to the future of the sport in America. (See Issue #7 for more.)
4. Financial Control and Interests
In 2012, Goodell allowed NFL referees—who are hired, trained and compensated to ensure the safety and fairness of the game—to go on strike, opting to hire “replacements” instead of increasing referee pay and benefits. The result was disastrous from an on-field perspective: the botched call at the end of the Packers-Seahawks game (the “Fail Mary”) notoriously demanded Goodell and NFL owners to pay the refs their due later within 48 hours. (The replacement refs couldn’t be drawn from top-level college football, since their season was already underway, so the temporary refs were recruited from among those who had failed to be chosen for arena, Canadian and college leagues.)
Why in the world would the world’s most lucrative sport refuse to pay a fair wage to the exact people who ensure its safety and success? The only logical conclusion is greed, as demonstrated by the quick Fail Mary about-face.
Two examples of ongoing racism have dominated the news cycle the past two years under Goodell’s watch. First, in 2013, Dolphins veteran lineman Richie Incognito (his actual name) was suspended for bullying second-year player Jonathan Martin. Incognito was well-known for his disdain for younger players and frequent use of racial slurs against Martin and other black players. Although Miami eventually released Incognito, he still received checks for 14 of the team’s 16 games that year, and the NFL decided not to adopt significant policy changes related to race-based hazing and bullying.
Second, Washington owner Daniel Snyder has maintained that his Redskins name is a compliment to Native Americans. Many broadcasting officials have refused to use the term, and while Snyder has adamantly refused to change the name, often citing a promise made to his late father, the NFL is likely to force a change in the near future.
Of course, these are just two issues identifying the NFL’s failure to address offensive racist views, while fans continue to flee the sport.
6. Disrespect of Women
The Ray Rice video revealed a deep flaw in Goodell’s reasoning on addressing domestic violence, seemingly requiring visual proof that Rice’s wife wasn’t merely making the whole thing up from the beginning. Football is the most male-dominant sport in our country, and the NFL’s active neglect of women—by virtue of its historically weak suspensions against domestic violence, in the absence of women in key executive and media roles, and in team’s “uniforms” for cheerleaders—is driving another divide in its massive fan base. The NFL’s response cannot be superficial—such as Goodell’s apology or the players’ pink cleats during breast cancer awareness month—or for merely viewership/financial gain, and the public will easily be able to discern the difference.
7. Disciplinary Authority
Finally, Goodell, league officials and team owners must address the pressing matter of disciplinary authority. Currently, the power for disciplinary action against players, including suspensions, fines and restoration, lies almost exclusively with the Commissioner. Essentially, he is President and Attorney General; judge, jury and executioner; Pope, Vatican and council. There is no question this must change. In the eyes of owners and TV execs, Goodell may be worth $44 million annually to run football’s monopoly. But Goodell’s “embarrassingly incompetent eight-year run,” as described by Grantland’s Bill Simmons, will likely come to an end during this season for this reason alone. As the old saying has always predicted, “absolute power” appears to have run its due course again.
The NFL has become a monster in more ways than one. It has been raised by Goodell, groomed by the media, and fed daily by us fans. Blame fantasy football? Blame the bloggers? Either way, monster is loose.
A change is coming, no doubt. Will the Commish keep his job, or will history remember Roger S Goodell instead as both architect and assassin of the world’s biggest sport, like Gotham’s Dark Knight? Who will slay the dragon and save the NFL from itself?
Answers coming soon, folks.