NEW ORLEANS — The most important and well-attended non-game event at the Super Bowl annually occurs every Friday before Super Sunday at 11:30 a.m. local time, when the commissioner of the National Football League holds a press conference that has come to be known as the “State of the League Address.” A very distant second in this category is the annual NFL Players Association press conference, which takes place every Thursday before the big game, usually at 3:15 p.m. local time. The week leading up to Super Bowl XLVII has been no different, and it left me wondering how the most successful sport in the world — and one of the healthiest businesses around — could employ so many angry and unhappy people?
When Paul Tagliabue was running the NFL and Gene Upshaw was running the players’ union, these events often exposed disagreements — and, at times, frustration — but the rhetoric was most often positive and aimed at finding common ground and solving problems. The players were often angry with management and ownership, and vice versa, but Tagliabue and Upshaw used the Super Bowl forum to focus on finding answers and paths to compromise, rather than roiling the waters and stoking flames. It was during this roughly 20-year period that the NFL enjoyed its greatest growth and success. At times, some suggested Tagliabue and Upshaw were too friendly, but their relationship worked.
Today, when I look at commissioner Roger Goodell, I see a man who appears intensely focused, confident, polished, somewhat greedy, competitive, accomplished, power hungry, a little too certain that he is almost always right and remarkably determined to see to it that the 32 team owners he works for always win on the business side of their operations. When I look at NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, I see a cross between a peacock and a bantam rooster. He is vain and exceptionally arrogant, highly combative, purposely irritating and basically a sycophant whom seems to think he accomplished a great deal in the beating he took at the bargaining table from Goodell and the owners in their last round of negotiations. It is hard to imagine Tagliabue or Upshaw being too happy about the way their league and union are being run today — I suspect Tags would be a lot more comfortable with the state of affairs than Upshaw — but it is easy to see why the relationship between the players and owners appears to be at or near an all-time low.
The NFL owners and players are about to wrap up the second year of a 10-year Collective Bargaining Agreement, which should mean an atmosphere of collegiality and cooperation, and a perfect environment in which to accomplish all kinds of bipartisan initiatives. Instead, Smith and NFLPA president Dominique Foxworth came out firing at Goodell and the owners at their Thursday presentation, accusing the owners of the following: providing subpar medical care; showing a reckless disregard for the well-being of their players; and being woefully inadequate in providing care and benefits to suffering retired players. Smith alluded to a series of grievances the players are preparing to file against the owners, in spite of the fact that most of the relief they seek is covered by procedures in the still somewhat new CBA.
With that as a backdrop, Goodell took to the podium Friday to address the state of the league. In his opening remarks, Goodell opined, “On and off the field in the last couple of years, we have accomplished some remarkable things that have really strengthened the very foundation of our game,” he said. “We have the most talented athletes on earth, in a game that those players and fans love. Our mission is to make it even better and we are doing the work. The changes we are making are having a positive impact. The game is exciting, competitive, tough and safer. We are making the game better while also evolving into a health and safety culture. That is a big priority. We are also improving officiating, investing in upgrading the stadium experience and engaging more people in more ways than ever. Our numbers are up in overall fan engagement, in most cases, dramatically. So a big thank you to NFL fans, the best in sports.”
Predictably, the commissioner was asked if he felt comfortable in New Orleans with the stain of the “Bountygate” mess still fresh in all our minds — and he was unrelenting in his position. “Let me just take a moment and get back and make sure everyone is clear on the record,” Goodell said. “There is no question there was a bounty program in place for three years. I think that that is bad for the players, for the game, and I think the message is incredibly clear, and I don’t believe that bounties will be part of football going forward. That’s good for everybody. I do think that message has come through clear. As it relates to the regrets, I think my biggest regret is that we aren’t all recognizing that this is a collective responsibility to get them out of the game to make the game safer. Clearly, the team, the NFL, the coaching staffs, executives and players, we all share that responsibility. That’s what I regret — that I wasn’t able to make that point clearly enough with the union, and with others. That is something we are going to be incredibly relentless on.”
Asked specifically about the attack unleashed on him and the owners the day before at the NFLPA presser relative to subpar medical care, Goodell replied, “Well again let me start with the fact that we spent four hours last Friday meeting with union officials, including many players and owners, and that issue did not come up,” Goodell said. “It was not raised during that entire four hours. That being said, I would tell you that I believe safety is all of our responsibilities. I can’t appoint somebody who’s going to make the game safer as an individual. That’s all of our responsibilities. I’ll stand up, I’ll be accountable; it’s part of my responsibility. I’ll do everything. But the players have to do it. The coaches have to do it. Our officials have to do it. Our medical professionals have to do it. All of us are going to have to do that. All that being said, since I just heard this in the last 12 hours, I’ll do anything that’s going to help us make the game safer and better. They have my commitment on that, so I’ll be happy to engage in the dialogue in a meeting where we can talk about the plusses and the minuses and how we make the game safer.”
A bit later, Goodell was pushed further on why there appears to be such a disconnect between him and the players, and why the relationship remains so litigious. “What I think disappoints me is that we reached a very comprehensive agreement a couple of years ago for 10 years to take the game to another level, and unfortunately we’re spending most of our time focusing on issues that we had agreed to,” he said. “As you point out, collusion charges, which were very clearly dealt with in the agreement. HGH was agreed to and we should have gotten to the point where we solved our differences and gotten that resolved. Commissioner discipline — I can go on. These are things that were resolved and are clear in the document and in our partnership. What we need to do is get back to focusing on how do we all work together to make the NFL better? I understand we’re going to have differences, I understand why there are grievances, I understand why there are lawyers, but we have to find solutions for the best interests of the game, and that’s my commitment and that’s what we have to work towards.”
Almost every area of disagreement the NFL ownership and labor are squabbling about today either springs from or points back to player safety — and I believe the reason everything about this relationship has become so contentious is actually quite obvious. Both sides are targeting a difficult problem that has no solution without dramatically changing the game as we know it, and that’s a prospect that scares the hell out of everybody. The players are asking the owners to protect them from themselves, and demanding the owners be liable after the players have harmed each other. And the owners know that all of the best parts of their game that make it so successful — and each of them so wealthy — will have to change if it is to be made truly safe, and that if those changes aren’t made, they will eventually crumble under the liabilities they face as players continue to abuse their own health.
One specific claim Smith leveled at the owners — which raised his ability to insult the intelligence of his audience to new highs — was when Smith said, “I can think of nothing more repugnant than NFL owners and teams asking their players to sign waivers of liability against team doctors for administering Toradol.” Clearly, Smith was suggesting the owners are asking or forcing players to take painkillers and anti-inflammatories to be able to play hurt, and then not accepting responsibility for the damage it might do. I am guessing that may have happened on occasion.
But how many times have we heard players of all shapes, sizes and levels of accomplishment crow about their willingness and even desire to “take a needle” to be able to continue to play and stay on the field? How complete a disregard does one have to have for the medical profession — and perhaps even the truth — to suggest it’s more likely team doctors are asking for waivers of liability to protect them against improper medical practices than it is they want to be protected from players who use medicine dangerously in spite of warnings from those doctors against the wisdom of taking the shot?
It is rare — at best — that any real news comes out of the commissioner’s “State of the League” press conference, and the players are almost always angry about something on the Thursday before the Super Bowl. In that context, this year’s events were particularly disturbing. What we learned is that the relationship between the players and the commissioner’s office, which we knew was uncomfortable — at best — is actually moving rapidly towards being completely fractured. What’s even worse than that is it appears the executive director of the NFLPA believes making sure that happens is the best way to represent his membership. And more than just wrong, that promises to be bad for everybody.