Player resentment for Goodell grows
Years from now, when I look back on the 2011 NFL draft, I’m guessing that Cam Newton’s(notes) broad smile, Thomas Dimitroff’s bold gamble and Larry Fitzgerald’s(notes) plush open-air living room will likely be among the enduring images.
Most of all, however, I’ll remember the continuous and cacophonous beatings Roger Goodell took atop the Radio City Music Hall stage.
It’s no fun being the NFL commissioner during a work stoppage, and I’m not surprised that many fans embraced the opportunity to take out their frustrations on the easiest and most available target during last Thursday night’s first round. Far more striking were the reactions of numerous players with whom I’ve communicated in recent days and who derived a sadistic pleasure in seeing Goodell squirm.
Thanks to the magic of text-messaging technology, I got a real-time sense of that sentiment during the first round. Said one Pro Bowl player in response to Goodell being booed: “As he should. He’s trying to [expletive] us.”
“Will any one of these [draft picks] nut up and ignore the handshake?” asked a veteran player for an AFC North team. “How about him taking a moment of silence in order to stop the boos? I’m all for paying respect to tornado victims, but what do you think his intent was there?”
When Goodell later appeared onstage with a group of U.S. soldiers, a player for an AFC West team said, “So that’s the only way he can get them to stop booing? Shameless.”
While Goodell-bashing may be cathartic for players and fans, I don’t think it’s good for football. For all my criticism of the owners during this labor stare down, I’ve remained relatively positive about Goodell’s role – partly because I’m convinced he’s not driving the bus, and partly because I’ve spoken to the man and looked him in the eye and believe he sincerely wants a deal.
Yet I’ve had a very, very hard time finding a player who shares those views, and however this lockout and the accompanying legal maneuverings are resolved, I’m convinced that the commissioner will have a very real problem with the vast majority of the men who wear “The Shield” of which he speaks so reverently.
“A lot of the players hated him even before this went down, and now they really hate him,” one prominent player for an NFC East team told me last Friday. “He’s not smooth, charming or witty. He never seems honest when he talks to you. And he’s a dope. They should change his name to Roger Goon-dell.”
That’s one nickname you won’t see mentioned on a future NFL Network “Top 10” production.
I’d dismiss this player as an outlier – if I hadn’t heard similar opinions from so many others. Over the past few weeks, Goodell has been called a “joke” and a “fraud” by the Baltimore Ravens’ Derrick Mason(notes) and the Seattle Seahawks’ Chester Pitts(notes), respectively, and I’ve heard plenty of unprintable insults from other players, too.
And while until a week or so ago I would have thought it crazy, I’m not going to throw something out there that might be worth pondering: Is it possible that, either by his choice or the will of his employers, the fallout from this labor nightmare will cost Goodell his job?
“Zero chance,” one owner insisted Wednesday.
The owner said there is near-unanimous support for the commissioner among the people running the 32 franchises and that Goodell has been “absolutely great” before and during the labor crisis.
“He’s showing the level of comportment and intelligent discourse that you’d expect of someone in his position, and his responses have been specific and thoughtful,” the owner said. “I can’t say that for [NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith]. We feel like Roger is representing our interests and trying hard to get a deal for the good of the game.”
Even if Goodell survives the current labor crisis, however, his standing among the rank and file has clearly taken a massive hit. From glad-handing in locker rooms to meting out discipline, Goodell’s post-settlement interactions with players figure to be awkward at best, and perhaps downright incendiary, for the foreseeable future.
“You think any vet will shake his hand when he’s at a game next year?” asked the AFC North player. “I hope he’s gone.”
While personally fond of Goodell, Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita(notes), a member of the decertified NFLPA’s executive committee, agrees that Goodell’s reputation with players has been compromised.
“Does he have a problem with getting the players’ respect? Absolutely,” Fujita says. “No matter what happens, it might be tough for him to ever get that back. However this is resolved, I can’t say every player, but the overwhelming majority will continue to have a problem with him. And that’s too bad.”
Like me, Fujita believes that much of the players’ anger toward Goodell is misplaced and that the commissioner, as the “face of the lockout,” is a natural and convenient foil. Yet while Fujita may believe that the Goodell-bashing is a tad over-the-top, he doesn’t view it as unjustified, either.
“He’s just in a really unenviable position of having to build consensus among the owners,” Fujita says. “I don’t know that anybody can do that right now. He’s the mouthpiece of the owners, and that’s why he’s getting that type of reaction. I do feel bad for him.
“Ideally, he’s someone who can build consensus among the owners and convince them to do what’s best for the game. I expected him to be that guy who can push those buttons and get them to move, but I’m afraid he might not be. I don’t know that he’ll be able to do that, and that’s disappointing.”
One thing that’s not helping Goodell is his image as a tough, no-nonsense executive, which began with his strengthening of the personal-conduct policy shortly after he succeeded Paul Tagliabue in 2006 and continued with his high-profile suspensions of players like Michael Vick(notes), Pacman Jones and Ben Roethlisberger(notes). In those contexts, Goodell was clearly The Sheriff. In this one, he’s a hired gun doing the bidding of the very wealthy people who technically employ him, and it’s hard for players and fans to appreciate the distinction.
Unlike the robotic, careful Taglibaue, Goodell has been refreshingly candid and edgy from the start of his reign, and his efforts to be inclusive of players and fans have been rightfully well received. However, on the big issues like labor, Tagliabue had a gift for appearing as though he were firmly in charge of the league, even when he nominally wasn’t. Goodell, as Fujita suggests, hasn’t yet come close to mastering that trick.
Goodell has also caused plenty of players to regard him as a hypocrite. Many, like Fujita, have questioned what they perceive to be a double standard when it comes to the application of the personal-conduct policy. For example, then-Raiders coach Tom Cable received no discipline from the league after a 2009 training-camp argument with defensive assistant Randy Hanson during which Hanson sustained a broken jaw (Hanson was never interviewed by Goodell or anyone from his office).
“People believe he’s been disingenuous when it comes to certain things,” Fujita says. “Every issue’s handled differently. He’s talking tough when it comes to player conduct and cracking down on big hits, but then you have things like the Tom Cable situation …”
Last summer, Goodell went on a training-camp tour and met with players to discuss the impending expiration of the collective bargaining agreement and labor issues in general. Grilled by Fujita and others, Goodell provided few satisfactory answers and, said witnesses, experienced a measure of hostility and humiliation.
In March, after negotiations broke down – and, upon the expiration of the CBA, the NFLPA decertified, the players filed an antitrust lawsuit against the league and the owners locked out the players – Goodell became the owners’ most visible public advocate. He wrote a letter to each player summarizing the league’s most recent offer and urging players to “encourage your union to return to the bargaining table.”
Pitts, the Seahawks’ NFLPA player rep, said in response, “I’ve told my guys to take the letter and set it on fire. We’re not that stupid.”
Players have bristled at subsequent comments by Goodell, including his assertion to San Diego Chargers season-ticket holders that the average-career-length of NFL players is longer than 3.5 years, as is commonly believed.
“He’s lost all credibility with us,” the AFC North player said last Thursday. “Especially with those comments about how the average career really isn’t three years. And telling us the last deal on the table had ” lifetime health insurance. Really? It had lifetime COBRA. He’s basically saying he’s betting we’ll never be employed again after football.”
It’s not particularly noteworthy that a high-stakes labor dispute would trigger heated rhetoric on both sides, and it’s fair to say that many or all of the 32 owners are as embittered toward Smith as some of the 1,800-plus NFL players are toward Goodell. The owner to whom I spoke insisted that Goodell’s efforts to establish a better working relationship with Smith – and to keep the lines of communication going even as the matter plays out in the courts – have not been reciprocated.
“Roger is trying to do business, and De is like a psycho girlfriend who doesn’t know what he wants, doesn’t understand what he’s involved in and [who] you can’t reason with,” the owner said. “With psycho girlfriends, at least you can move on eventually. But Roger is stuck with him right now.”
Two observations: 1. The next time I need to come up with a biting analogy, instead of going for a bike ride to clear my head or consulting with one of my journalistic peers, I should probably call this owner and ask for assistance; 2. plenty of seemingly reasonable people with erratically behaving romantic partners get sullied by association, and right now this appears to be a scenario in which there are no winners.
Labor peace would obviously go a long way toward restoring Goodell’s positive aura. If the lawsuit is settled and a new CBA is achieved before the scheduled start of the regular season – or, at the very least, if the owners lose their appeal of U.S. District Court Judge Susan Nelson’s decision ending the lockout and football continues while the antitrust lawsuit drags on, without any games being missed – I believe Goodell can and will recover.
“I think if everything gets resolved and the games are played on time, fans will be forgiving and will forget very quickly,” Fujita says. “As for his job security with the people who employ him – that depends on the deal that is reached and their opinion of it.”
The owner to whom I spoke conceded that if the lockout continues into September or October, it’s possible some owners will begin to turn on Goodell. For now, he has their unequivocal support – and the privilege of being the most glaring symbol of player and fan discontent.
“He’s the face of this whole problem, the face of the league that locked out the players,” Fujita says. “He is just the face who’s trying to shut down the game and take away our livelihood – and that pisses guys off. It’s as simple as that.”
Once there’s a deal, will the Goodell-bashing simply go away?
Or, more dramatically, will he?