Although the referee lockout is over, anger toward commissioner Roger Goodell has not subsided. While serving at the behest of his owners, Goodell assumed the role as the face of a league presenting a devalued product in the name of trying to squeeze a better deal. Players, coaches, fans and media were angry; the scapegoat was and is Goodell. And Goodell's letter apologizing to fans only exacerbated the vitriol.
Through lockouts of both the players and the officials, scores of player-conduct measures, including the still-simmering bounty suspensions, and discipline of popular franchises such as the Cowboys, Redskins, Patriots and Saints, the hits from and to Goodell keep on coming. Over the past couple of years, he has been called "dictator," "joke," "fraud," "executioner," "devil" and other blistering verbal grenades.
What to make of everyone shooting the messenger? Not much.
Someone has to be the mark. It's not going to be an owner -- several of them were instructing Goodell to hold firm with the officials (see below) -- as they are too aligned with individual clubs, and it is not going to be one of the army of lawyers negotiating these disputes. Thus, the face on the dartboard is always Goodell's.
Grin and bear it
Goodell's response to personal attacks has been and, in my opinion, should continue to be to not engage. By responding, he can do no good, only harm, and would only escalate the tension, especially with players.
Although he serves in an extremely public position, Goodell prefers to operate discreetly, building consensus with varied blocs of ownership alignments. Unlike his NFLPA counterpart, DeMaurice Smith, Goodell avoids rhetoric and sound bites for effect. He has mastered the art of answering questions while saying very little. His comments are bland and unrevealing; he always resists the temptation to respond impulsively or emotionally.
Goodell's tenure has been defined by priority initiatives centering on player conduct and player safety. I not only witnessed Goodell's first foray into player misconduct but was able to see some empathy in him as well.
In 2006, during my tenure in the Packers front office, we acquired talented receiver Koren Robinson, who had a DUI charge and would be facing trial following the season. Having become accustomed to the process under former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, where a player would not be disciplined until the legal process had played out, we expected to have Robinson's services through the season.
However, there was a new sheriff in town. Goodell, emboldened by his signature Personal Conduct Policy, was not waiting for the courts or creative lawyering. Based on his own investigation and sense of morality, he suspended Robinson for a year.
Although we were upset at losing Koren, his suspension led to a glimpse inside a different side of Goodell. He took a personal interest in Koren, who had battled alcohol issues, and wanted to track his progress. Although certainly skeptical of this new commissioner with an apparent obsession with player conduct, I saw sincerity in his belief about the obligation NFL players have as role models. My cynicism slowly melted when he pursued private visits with Koren away from the cameras. He had taken a personal interest in a player -- and not a star player -- whom he suspended in hopes of using the time to conquer his demons.
Goodell, the primary steward of a $9.5 billion asset, will find it hard to escape the perception of the corporate and callous tyrant. Ultimately, it is difficult for him to show much compassion while representing the interests of owners used to getting their way and unaccustomed to hearing the word no. And Goodell certainly doesn't help his image with his platitudes and limited transparency, although much of that is by necessity more than design. But behind the icy facade there is a good man trying to find the best in his players. He needs to show that side more often.
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Athletes who go "Broke"
I'm not a player, but I do have a lot of perspective as a former agent and team executive. Here are my thoughts on the issue:
The hardest thing about representing athletes was controlling spending and trying to defer large purchases. The mentality would usually be that they want it and want it now. The culture feeds it: Athletes see their peers with nice homes, fancy cars and luxuries that they want, even if they are not prepared financially to do it.
Often the major problem with spending would not necessarily be the athlete himself, but the group of people around him. I refer to them as the "whisper crew" -- friends, relatives, hometown buddies and hangers-on who always seem to be whispering to the player about how great he is or how they need financial support. I know players who support several people even beyond their families, and the lifestyles of those people mimic that of the player. I have told players that they need to distance themselves from certain people, but I know that is a hard thing for them to do.
The sad thing is that players get used to a level of spending that cannot be sustained when the career ends or, as I call it, "when the music stops." The whisper crew is nowhere to be found when the gravy train has run out. I've seen it too many times.
With the Packers, I encouraged players to take their salaries on a year-round basis rather than just over the four months of the season, so that their earnings -- and their spending -- would be more level. Very few players opted for this. They wanted the money sooner. I also set up meetings for financial planners to come in and make presentations to the players, without endorsement from the team, about the need for planning and saving. Again, very few attended.
Last month, a player I know who had a 10-year career in the NFL phoned me in a desperate manner. He needed money, and needed it now. He was broke and had blown through his savings. A former Pro Bowl player, he was now calling several people to help him.
Whenever I speak to players, I tell them, "It's not what you make; it's what you keep." Some listen; many do not. The instant gratification of living large is a powerful force.
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From the mailbag ...
Which of the NFL owners were telling Goodell to hold firm with the referees and which were trying to get a deal done?
-- Robert in Miami
A bloc of owners, including the Panthers' Jerry Richardson and the Jets' Woody Johnson, was adamant about not being leveraged by the substandard job of the replacements and continuing to negotiate with the officials with a hard line, according to Judy Battista of The New York Times. Battista further points to owners such as the Giants' John Mara and the Patriots' Robert Kraft as moved by the events of the Seattle-Green Bay game and pressing for resolution in the name of integrity and brand devaluation.
This episode is a microcosm of the political world of NFL ownership. There are different agendas with different negotiating styles, especially on the subject of labor. There are some owners who felt both the players and the officials were/are fungible commodities that do not affect demand for the product and should be treated as such in labor negotiations. Others are more conciliatory, but all are profit-conscious. Before Goodell negotiates with the players or the officials, he has the herculean task of simply building consensus with this group.
Now that Goodell has met with the bounty-suspended players, when do you expect a ruling and what do you think it will be?
-- Adam in Denver
There are three circumstances that present an opportunity for Goodell to reduce and/or eliminate suspensions for the players: 1) an appeals panel ruling admonishing Goodell to stay in his lane with discipline only for conduct detrimental rather than for contract/cap-related payment issues; 2) the opportunity he had to sit face to face with the players in a (hopefully) open and honest exchange; and 3) the continuing jurisdiction of Judge Helen Berrigan -- who has shown inclinations of leaning toward Jonathan Vilma -- in a New Orleans court, should the players continue to pursue that avenue.
My sense is the suspensions will be reduced for Vilma and perhaps Smith. The situation with Hargrove is murkier, as his actions allegedly involved more obstruction of the investigation and lying to investigators. As for Fujita, there is a chance his penalty could be reduced to fines, as the appeals panel distinguished financial improprieties from on-field misconduct and did not make a distinction between the funding or the receiving of money in a payment system. Fujita's actions were in allegedly pledging money to the pool, perhaps exonerating him from Goodell's area of discipline.
Let us hope that the redetermination of discipline comes soon and this episode can come to an amicable close (although that may be wishful thinking).