Don’t Believe Goodell HypeRe-Elected NFL Commissioner opposes interests of fans and players
Ben Wynns, Staff Writer
The first week of February was a pretty good one for National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell. On the heels of glowing media profiles from 60 Minutes and the New York Times, Goodell was re-elected to his position by his bosses, the league’s 32 franchise owners.
So far, the owners have little reason to regret their decision; the morning after the Giants defeated the Patriots for the second time in four years in Super Bowl XLVI, Goodell boasted that the game was the highest-rated program in American televi- sion history for the second year in a row.
Goodell has become as big a superstar as can be produced by the buttoned-down boardrooms that administer the nation’s lucrative professional sports leagues, and the telegenic, media-friendly commissioner often seems eager to insert himself into coverage of the NFL and its year-round storylines.
But a closer look beyond the state-of- the-art marketing and pervasive popular- ity Goodell has brought about reveals that his NFL practices a particularly arrogant form of corporate excess. Between the increasingly publicized physical toll the game takes on its players and the grow- ing difficulty of fandom during a time of economic hardship, Goodell always seem to put the owners’ wallets and his own personal brand ahead of sound policy.
During his 60 Minutes interview, Goodell said with little apparent irony that the grinding recession had been great for the league’s ratings. Goodell, the son of a former Republican U.S. Senator, stated that the increasing isolation and loneliness of the nation’s poor had created a need for the escapism and sense of community created by NFL clubs. However, it seems like this emotional relationship between the league and its fans is occasionally an abusive one.
Despite frequent calls for an end to the practice by fans and legislators, the NFL defiantly persists in its TV blackout policy, in which games that do not sell out at the stadium are blocked from local television. The cruel greed of this policy is obvious; pay for the league’s increasingly expensive tickets (up 30% since 2005) or you don’t get to participate in the benevolent “escap- ism” Goodell bestows upon us. It’s of little surprise that the most frequently blacked- out teams come from some of the nation’s most economically-maligned areas, such as Tampa, Cincinnati, and Buffalo. The ab- surdity and unfairness of the policy is all the more highlighted by the fact that most of these blacked-out games are played in taxpayer-funded stadiums.
Then to add insult to injury, Goodell announced following his re-election that he would pursue expansion of the league’s controversial Thursday night games. Introduced over the last several seasons, the Thursday night games seem to exist only as a thinly-veiled extortion scheme promoting the league’s pricey cable chan- nel, The NFL Network.
Even more of an issue is Goodell’s relationship with his players, who are far more important to the success of the league than Goodell appears to think. Though the fans have it bad, the players face far more dramatic consequences from his policies. For most of 2011, Goodell oversaw the league’s most heated labor dispute since the 1980s and brought the season to the brink of cancellation. Goodell and the owners he’s paid to represent took hard- line stances during negotiations, calling for players to endure longer seasons with less guaranteed money and benefits.
This disrespect for the well-being of the players extends onto the field, as well. Despite the increasing awareness of the physical burden taken on by the league’s prized labor force, Goodell has dragged his feet. In the last several years, journal- istic investigations, medical studies, and a series of untimely deaths among former players has illustrated the link between football collisions and serious brain injury in those who spend even the shortest of careers in the league. However, Goodell’s office continues to take the most conserva- tive possible track on concussion policy, refusing to officially recognize any causal relationship (thus avoiding potentially- damaging legal action) and falling far short of the medical benefits called for by player associations during the lockout negotiations.
Instead, Goodell’s reaction to the growing concern over player safety has been to shift the blame on to players while simultaneously promoting himself. Goodell has made a great show over the last two seasons of his practice of indi- vidually fining and disciplining players for violent hits. These decisions have been made without any consultation from play- ers and referees and are determined under what critics call arbitrary and inconsistent standards. This ad hoc policy has carried over to Goodell’s handling of off-the-field issues as well, with young players from often poor backgrounds being targeted and made an example for extracurricular trans- gressions while coaches who commit equal offenses are often let off the hook.
Many discontent players have made their feelings clear, and not just those targeted by Goodell’s discipline crusades. Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, usually known for his soft-spoken per- sonality, starkly laid out the context of Goodell’s approach in comments during the labor dispute last year: “A lot of people think it’s millionaires versus billionaires and that’s the huge argument. The fact is it’s people fighting against big business. The big business argument is ‘I got the money and I got the power therefore I can tell you what to do.’”
It would be hard to argue against the fact that Goodell is very good at his job: making the NFL wealthier and more pow- erful. But some of Goodell’s once-popular contemporaries present cautionary tales. NBA Commissioner David Stern had also been highly popular and respected before heavy-handed relations with players and misguided overexpansion plunged the league into labor strife and poor atten- dance in recent years. Ten years ago, Major League Baseball boss Bud Selig was riding a wave of popularity before the steroid abuse scandal he helped to cover up tar- nished his game’s reputation forever.
All that the NFL’s owners may care about are their portfolios and privileges, but if Goodell is interested in a favorable legacy he must take a more conciliatory and humane stance on the serious issues of fan satisfaction and player safety.