Commentary

Players are Goodell's toughest critics

Commissioner struggles to forge relationship with players at odds with his reign

Originally Published: May 7, 2012
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- On the Wednesday before the NFL draft, as mid-morning sunshine soaked lower Manhattan, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell strode onto a soccer field cluttered with giddy children, eager reporters and 26 draft prospects. The league had organized a football clinic as part of its "Play 60" program, and Goodell, wearing a baggy blue sweat suit, ambled to midfield to survey the action. The commissioner was there to help future rookies sell youth fitness, but he didn't overlook an opportunity to chat with New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who was speaking at the event. The two spoke for at least 10 minutes, talking seriously at times, joking and laughing at others and looking eerily like long-lost pals.

This didn't seem like the no-nonsense Roger Goodell who just issued suspensions to four players -- including a one-year ban for linebacker Jonathan Vilma -- for their roles in the New Orleans Saints' bounty system. It also didn't appear that Goodell had any problems bonding with a veteran at a time when so many players despise him.

"The stupidity of some people gets me sometimes," Umenyiora said later, adding that he first met Goodell on a USO tour of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008. "A lot of players think he's trying to take away our game, but Roger really cares about us. He's a regular guy."

Goodell surely would love to hear similar comments from other players. The problem is that too many players don't think like Umenyiora. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison once said, "If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn't do it." Others whisper that he is arrogant, endowed with too much power and wants to both govern and be liked. Some have even developed a catchphrase for summarizing their feelings: "You can't spell Goodell without G-O-D."

Goodell clearly understands that such hostility comes with his job. What makes him so intriguing is his unwavering desire to forge a relationship with players who are at odds with his reign. Arizona Cardinals kicker and NFL Players Association representative Jay Feely said, "There's a general distrust for him." Kansas City right tackle Eric Winston, who joined the Chiefs after six seasons in Houston, added, "He's judge, jury and executioner. The joke around the locker room in Houston was that Goodell is like Xerxes [the ruler] in the movie '300.' He can do whatever he wants. Obviously, he has the power to do that -- and that's partially our fault because we didn't get it addressed in the [collective bargaining agreement] -- but it also doesn't make for a friendly environment."

"The basis of what we do is about keeping the integrity of the game," Goodell said when asked about how players view him. "We're committed to doing that, and I know everybody isn't going to like how we're doing it. But I also don't make up rules while I'm just sitting at my desk. I have to get at least 24 teams to agree on them. I have to go through a competition committee and talk to coaches and players and collect as much information as we can before making a decision. That's a good thing. And that's something dictators don't do."

Roger GoodellAP Photo/Alix DrawecCommissioner Roger Goodell's feel-good activities, such as participating in the NFL's "Play 60" program to encourage exercise among children, have done little to sway his critics.

Harsh penalties

To the average player, Goodell is best known for his harsh policies. Players have seen teammates called to the league office to discuss behavior and vicious hits and they've seen more peers strictly penalized for breaking newly emphasized rules that sometimes contradict how they learned the game. Harrison is the most prominent target of this new NFL -- the five-time Pro Bowl linebacker has been fined six times for a total of $125,000 and was suspended one game last season after a collision with Browns quarterback Colt McCoy -- but there are plenty of others who can empathize with his pain. In today's league, a face mask ($15,000 fine for a second offense) or excessive profanity ($20,000 for a second offense) penalty can be extra costly.

The environment became even more tense after the recent Saints scandal. In addition to banning Vilma, Goodell suspended former New Orleans defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove (eight games), defensive end Will Smith (four) and former linebacker Scott Fujita (three). The NFLPA has filed a grievance challenging the authority of Goodell to suspend the players.

Though players had mixed reactions to the punishments -- Giants quarterback Eli Manning tweeted that "[Roger Goodell] is doing the right thing to make sure that this doesn't happen ever again" while Miami Dolphins running back Reggie Bush wrote, "Man, these suspensions are outrageous!" -- most understand how such discipline reflects on Goodell.

"I've been in the locker room when those fines come down and I know what happens when you're dealing with 53 guys who don't know Roger," former Giants center and player representative Shaun O'Hara said. "You've got the guy getting fined plus five guys to his left and five guys to his right who see it. That's 11 guys who now hate the commissioner. That stuff can spread like wildfire."

James HarrisonJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesJames Harrison -- a frequent target of Roger Goodell's disciplinary measures -- has become one of the commissioner's most vocal critics.

It becomes even more difficult for Goodell to foster a decent relationship with players if all they know is his tough side. Giants co-owner Steve Tisch said Goodell "is masterful at listening to everyone and 100 percent sincere," and there is ample evidence of that. When Houston Texans Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster recently visited the NFL offices in New York, Goodell cleared his schedule to chat with Foster and watch film. Goodell constantly asks staff members in meetings how potential decisions will affect the players. "You get skewered if you don't have the right answer or haven't done enough research on an issue," said Troy Vincent, the league's vice president of player engagement.

Goodell is savvy at the little things, something that could never be said of his dour, grim-faced predecessor, Paul Tagliabue. O'Hara said the commissioner asks about his wife and remembers her name every time they run into each other. Umenyiora bonded with Goodell during that USO tour because they shared a room and worked out together at 3 a.m. most days. And when the league fined New York Jets safety Eric Smith for a brutal hit on then-Arizona wide receiver Anquan Boldin in 2008 -- Smith received a $50,000 fine and a one-game suspension -- Goodell at least listened intently as former Jets fullback Tony Richardson pleaded for a lesser punishment during a lengthy phone conversation.

"He's definitely kept the dialogue open," said Richardson, who served on the NFLPA executive committee. "I've also been on some competition committees so I understand how the fine system works. But if you're an average player, you're going to feel like things are getting worse. And defensive players are definitely at the disadvantage."

Goodell's standard response to such concerns is that evolution is never easy. It's that approach that has made Goodell so controversial. "What I've always liked about Roger is that he decides what he thinks is right and he goes with it," Texans owner Bob McNair said. "When you do that, you set yourself up for a lot of criticism. But it's also his job to protect the shield. He's the watchdog."

Courting the players

One reason Goodell so values a solid relationship with the players is that he's always believed in the idea. When he oversaw the Pro Bowl in the 1990s, Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon once lobbied Goodell to add a third quarterback to the All-Star event. When Goodell said that would be a tough sell, Moon kept pushing. "You aren't seeing it," Moon said. "If the other guy gets hurt, I have to play the entire game."

Goodell laughed about Moon's logic during a recent interview, but he still embraces that lesson: The players can be part of the solution. "I don't have to [reach out to the players], but I do think their perspective is important," Goodell said. "[This year's] Pro Bowl is a good example of that. We felt like the game wasn't reflecting what the NFL wanted, so I met with three or four player groups to discuss it. And they acknowledged that it wasn't the type of football we wanted to present to our fans."

Goodell also is quick to point out that players were responsible for some of the authority he now holds. When he succeeded Tagliabue in 2006, the league was dealing with a handful of controversial off-the-field incidents, notably those involving cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, wide receiver Chris Henry and defensive tackle Tank Johnson. Shortly after Goodell's election by the owners, players' association chief Gene Upshaw and a committee of players agreed to give him the power to discipline those who embarrassed the league. "They were troubled by some players falling into trouble because it was affecting all players," Goodell said. "I think we talked to as many as 160 players to develop a policy that was thoughtful and effective. And it works. It's helped players."

Regardless of how players feel about the personal conduct policy, they can't argue against Goodell's consistency. Before punishing the Saints players last week, he suspended former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (indefinitely), coach Sean Payton (one year), general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games) and assistant Joe Vitt (six games). Goodell also has taken on his bosses. "I know he's been even-handed because he fined me $100,000 for some comments I made in Minnesota involving revenue sharing," Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "And I obviously didn't think that needed to be done."

In fact, most players say their relationship with Goodell is strained primarily because of one issue: player safety. The league knows how critical this matter is because it currently faces 62 lawsuits with more than 1,500 former players claiming the league didn't do enough to address head trauma. However, it took only one mid-October weekend in 2010 for Goodell to shake up the players with his vision for a safer work environment. The league fined three players -- Harrison, Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson and then-New England safety Brandon Meriweather -- a total of $175,000 for violent hits on defenseless receivers (it was later reduced to $115,000 on appeal). The message Goodell's office sent that day: This league has become too brutal.

Goodell has argued that such a strong reaction, as well as the fines that have been levied against other players since, has been essential because "we're protecting them. I get it if you're a player doing the striking and you want to continue playing the game that way but there's also a player being struck." But Buffalo Bills linebacker Nick Barnett said more players would embrace these rules if they weren't imposed at such a high cost.

"Paul Tagliabue wasn't fining guys and taking their money," Barnett said. "We're going through big changes, as far as the culture of the sport, and it's hard to agree when a lot of money is being taken from you while you're going through a transition. Roger was killing people last season. A guy like James Harrison lost something like 10 years of taking care of his family."

Doubts about sincerity

Trent RichardsonAl Bello/Getty ImagesSome players are irritated by the commissioner's displays of affability at the draft and doubt that he sincerely has the players' best interests at heart. His support for an 18-game schedule particularly rankles his critics.

What irks some players more than fines is the doubt about whether Goodell is genuine about player safety. Though McNair is a big fan -- "The players don't realize how much Roger has done for them; we're the ones who pushed to increase the pension and raised $100 million for concussion research," he said -- the players see a commissioner who has promoted the idea of an 18-game season and come off as far less compassionate behind the scenes.

"A lot of players don't believe he has their best interests at heart," Feely said. "If he did, he wouldn't have 200-plus workmen's compensation complaints caught up in the appeals process. He wouldn't be dismissing disability claims right off the bat. There are so many things that happen behind the scenes that fans don't know about that make players distrust him."

Feely also believes Goodell could improve his relationship with the players with one simple move, saying, "He could create an independent appeals [process], because whether it's just or not the players see the current process as unfair." The players have coveted such checks and balances for years, but Goodell counters by saying he's not directly involved in on-field punishments. A retired player (vice president of football operations Merton Hanks) decides the penalty, two former coaches (Ted Cottrell and Hall of Fame offensive tackle Art Shell) handle appeals and the NFLPA reviews the league's fine policy during training camp every year. "At the end of the day, the players may not like it," said league executive vice president of operations Ray Anderson. "But it works."

Goodell's lieutenants believe the policy is working because, as Hanks said, "You can see the change on film. It would be one thing if we were asking players to do something they can't, but we're not."

The backlash Goodell has faced, however, remains very real. When he toured training camps before the 2010 season, a move designed to answer questions about CBA negotiations, he was met with so much vitriol that he didn't see all 32 teams. One such meeting in Indianapolis was cut short after former Colts center Jeff Saturday determined his teammates were becoming too caustic in attacking Goodell.

When asked about those visits, Goodell said, "I didn't see them as acrimonious. I didn't expect to go into any of those locker rooms and have agreement. I went to find out what was right and wrong."

Said Winston: "You can't have it both ways. You can't say you want to help the players when, as the lockout showed, you're really a mouthpiece for the owners. As players, everything is really black and white for us. And during the lockout, we learned that even if he wants to be neutral in some ways, it's clear that he's not."

Still, Goodell remains committed to connecting with players. That was apparent even as he was booed during the first and second day of this year's draft (fans also booed him last year at the event, largely because of the ongoing lockout). Every first-round pick who walked on stage after being selected beamed and embraced him in a massive bro-hug.

Some players roll their eyes when they see Goodell doing such things, believing those same rookies will someday be complaining about a fine from Goodell's office. Others see a commissioner gaining ground in his attempt to strengthen his relationship with the people who play the game.

"When Roger is interacting with players, I don't think he's doing it to score points," O'Hara said. "At the draft, those players aren't holding back. They're hugging him before he gets to them. But I also think that Roger realizes that if he has to drop the hammer on them later in their careers, it's better to know them as players once they come in."

Goodell's biggest supporters also believe that people will look back at his tenure 20 years from now and applaud it. Anderson said Goodell would be known largely for player safety, saying "people will see that Roger took a stand and stood his ground." Jerry Jones added that "when I look at all the assets of the NFL going forward, I see Roger as its biggest. And I think he's just getting started."

The question for players, however, is whether that actually is a good thing. Said Winston, "The one thing we know about Roger is this: He's not giving up that power."

"I don't know how you can do this job and not be controversial," Goodell said. "I'm trying to run this organization, and that means you have to make some tough decisions. Some people aren't going to be happy with that. But ultimately, I'm going to do what's best for this game long term."