11 years ago today, Roger Goodell was chosen as Commissioner of the NFL, replacing Paul Tagliabue. It was a safe, uninspired choice. Goodell had been Tagliabue’s right-hand man for years and already had relationships with all the league owners. As we enter Goodell’s 12th season on the job, those same owners who voted him in appear to be the only supporters he has left. Fortunately for him, they’re the only constituency that matters.
Contrary to popular opinion, Roger Goodell wasn’t created in a lab by rogue scientists attempting to distill pure evil into human form. He was raised in the New York suburbs by a normal family – that is, if being a United States Senator is normal. Charles Goodell was a Congressman from New York who was appointed by then-New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller to fill Robert Kennedy’s Senate seat upon Kennedy’s assassination in 1968. Goodell was a moderate Republican, a category that today no longer exists.
During his short two-year stint as a Senator, Goodell was best known for taking a principled, courageous, and ultimately career-killing stand against the Vietnam War. The war was fairly unpopular by then (hence Lyndon Johnson deciding not to run for re-election), but the spirit of protest certainly didn’t extend to Senate Republicans, or the brand new president, Richard Nixon. Goodell publicly broke with the Nixon administration, introducing a bill to de-fund the war, and even leading a march against it in Washington.
It didn’t work – the war was still winding down when Nixon resigned in 1974 – but it did earn him a spot on Nixon’s famed “Enemies List,” turning the entire White House and the GOP establishment against him. Vice President Spiro Agnew launched repeated personal attacks against Goodell and some Republicans funded a challenger – James L. Buckley – who eventually prevailed in the 1970 Senate election. Goodell was out on his ass after two short years, never to return to elected politics.
Simply put, he sacrificed his entire career to take a stand against something that he felt was wrong.
Roger Goodell (understandably) looked up to his dad. He is also (understandably) proud of his father’s accomplishments, even hanging the original bill to de-fund the Vietnam War on the wall of his office.
“That was a valuable lesson to me – taking that position he did would be the end of his political career,” he told the New York Times in 2010.
Which begs the question: is there any evidence at all that Roger Goodell internalized that lesson? This is a man who makes over $40 million a year kowtowing to billionaires and who refuses to take even the slightest stand, lest he offend his corporate masters. Given the opportunity to take a stand on domestic violence, he made a farce of the entire process and even succeeded in making people feel bad for Ray Rice by the end of that ordeal. It was clear Goodell only cared about PR, not the underlying issues of domestic violence and basic justice.
Goodell has also had a chance to take a stand on marijuana. The NFL could have seen which way the wind was blowing and gotten out in front, reducing penalties for positive tests (or better yet, don’t test for weed!) and embracing medical marijuana as a potential alternative for opiate-based painkillers. Instead, while an opiate epidemic rages across the country, leaving thousands of bodies in its wake, Goodell has stuck his head in the sand, continuing to boot people from the league for smoking a little herb, while players line up for Toradol shots and little white pills in every locker room from the LA Coliseum to Gillette Stadium.
New stadiums financed with public money? More of the same. He easily could have led the charge for the league to stop using public money to build stadiums. It would have been great PR and something both sides of the political aisle could agree on, not to mention just being the right thing to do. Instead, he and his bosses will gladly accept any public money, as long as it makes them richer.
Lastly, and most importantly, Goodell has been an absolute gutless coward when it comes to brain injuries and player health. If you want to give him the benefit of the doubt, you could say that penalties for domestic violence need to be collectively bargained, marijuana is more of a legal issue than a league issue, and if he tried to stop owners from taking handouts they don’t need from taxpayers, they would just fire him. I would disagree, but you could at least make those arguments. However, there is NO excuse for his actions – really his inaction – on head injuries and player health.
Last week Goodell told a group on non-NFL players that “The average NFL player lives five years longer than you do.” Besides being a cherry-picked statistic that doesn’t take into account quality of life, it was disturbing because it gave the impression that Goodell actually believes that ex-NFL players are fine and dandy when it comes to their physical health. This is a trend for Goodell: like many whose jobs involve PR, he likes to make statements that may be factually correct in a narrow sense, but that send a wildly misleading message about the welfare of his employees.
In 2016, when asked about the very real dangers football presents, Goodell said, “There’s risk in life. There’s risk in sitting on the couch.” As if the only choices available to human beings are to atrophy on a couch and die of heart disease at 62 or play football and end up shooting yourself in the chest. Perhaps Goodell is unaware that millions of people regularly exercise without using their heads as battering rams.
Of course, the real damage done by Goodell isn’t from spewing half-true anecdotes; it’s the NFL’s disturbing history (still ongoing) of denying the link between football and CTE, their use of stooge doctors to prop up their case, and their manipulation of research meant to study the link between concussions, football, and CTE. Other, better writers like Mark Fainaru-Wada, Steve Fainaru, and Alan Schwarz have written thousands of words on this topic, but the conclusion is pretty straightforward: rather than being a bold leader on this issue, Roger Goodell has been an impediment to progress.
No matter how much Goodell and the league claim to care about player health, flippant comments like “You can get hurt on your couch” reveal more about Goodell’s true feelings on the issue than any “official” position ever could.
The owners – AKA Goodell’s bosses – have also been instrumental in impeding progress by denying the link between football, concussions, and CTE.
Jerry Jones said it was “absurd” to think there’s a link between football and CTE. Jim Irsay (ironically) compared the risk of playing football to that of taking an Aspirin. Terry Pegula said just recently, “You can be driving your car and get a concussion in an accident. I don’t want to discuss the relevance of it in football.” It isn’t exactly shocking that these owners don’t want to be blamed (and especially sued) for killing off their work force. They’re also negatively disposed towards anything that threatens the NFL.
Still, Roger Goodell could have been proactive on this issue from his first day in office, admitting blame, raising money for ex-players, commissioning unbiased research, and aggressively changing the rules of the sport. If he was smart about it, he probably could have even gotten the owners on board.
Is there a chance they would have rebelled, closed ranks, and fired Goodell over the issue? Of course. I don’t think they would have, just because of the massive PR hit they would have taken, but there’s certainly a chance.
I can think of one person who wouldn’t be scared away by that possibility: Charles Goodell.