For years, Roger Goodell held one of the safest and most lucrative jobs in sports. Presiding as commissioner over a league with impenetrable popularity and nationwide reach brought him tens of millions of dollars a year, and the NFL’s 32 owners were happy to see him running the show.
But controversies have dogged the league, from the handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence situation to the degree of concussion awareness to declining television ratings. And now, with criticism of protests reaching the level of full-throated screams, Goodell finds his once-secure throne wobbling.
A new ESPN report suggests that owners are growing increasingly discontented with the continuing problems that consume the NFL, dragging both its popularity and its sponsor appeal downward. Goodell’s contract extension remains unsigned, and while most owners expect the deal to get done, it’s by no means the formality it might have been even a year ago.
A group of 17 owners, including the Dallas Cowboys‘ Jerry Jones, met on a call Thursday to discuss Goodell’s contract, and according to ESPN, some of the voices on the call were highly critical.
“You don’t get to have this many messes over the years like Roger has had and survive it,” one owner reportedly said.
Removing Goodell from office would require a vote of 24 of the 32 owners, and that appears unlikely at the moment. But his power has been compromised, his aura dimmed, and a contract extension that was supposed to be completed this summer remains unsigned. Goodell had earned a reported $44 million per year prior to the NFL’s self-declared revocation of its tax-exempt status; the NFL does not need to disclose Goodell’s salary now.
Even though Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, head of the NFL’s compensation committee, believes negotiations are proceeding, other owners aren’t so optimistic.
“Maybe Arthur and that committee think they’re on track,” one owner told ESPN. “But they have a lot more resistance than they counted on — and maybe they don’t know how the resistance is growing as we speak.”
That line of reasoning sounds a whole lot like the growing discontent over protests during national anthems. Even disregarding President Donald Trump’s continuing populist appeals to fire protesting players, there’s a loud and angry contingent of fans enraged at the protests. Whether that contingent is large enough to make any kind of substantial impact on the league’s bottom line remains unknown, but the opposition’s presence is indisputable, and the NFL ignores that danger at its peril.
The NFL continues to face problems that are often of its own making, from the two-teams-in-Los-Angeles fiasco to, more recently, Texans owner Bob McNair’s ill-timed, poorly phrased comment comparing NFL players to “inmates.” It’s enough to give some owners deep questions about what long-term strategy the NFL might have for navigating these treacherous waters.
“That was our recurring theme, that there’s no leadership,” one executive told ESPN. “Everyone [in the NFL’s HQ] is trying to win the latest news cycle, and there’s no long-term vision. It’s just, ‘How can we minimize the bad headlines, maximize the revenue, and move on to the next day?’ And there’s an increasing frustration to that approach.”
UPDATE: Blank declined to answer a question about the ESPN report or Goodell’s extension:
Asked Arthur Blank, chair of compensation committee, about ESPN report: "The only response I have is that was a great Falcons win."
— Jenny Vrentas (@JennyVrentas) October 29, 2017