Roger Goodell needs a hug
Roger Goodell and the NFL always seemed like an inspired match: the first hip commissioner running the ultimate new millennium league. Compared with his big league contemporaries -- baseball's Bud Selig, the NHL's Gary Bettman and the NBA's David Stern, the first big league sports boss to really preach world domination -- Goodell has always seemed to be a new mutation: a player's commissioner, if there is such a creature.
Goodell's rib-cracking, chest-bumping, man-hug greetings to first-round picks at the NFL draft have always set him apart. When he wondered what human growth hormone testing would involve for the players if the league succeeds in imposing it, he decided to undergo an unannounced visit by a drug tester himself -- then later joked to a USA Today reporter who asked whether he had passed, "Let me put it this way: I'm proud of my results." When he caught criticism for calling Chad Ochocinco even though the NFL lockout is in effect, Goodell had another joking retort: He protested "I had to do it" because Ochocinco "tweeted me out" -- as opposed to the olde English "called me out" that's usually spoken in boardrooms.
In a lot of ways, Goodell is the Bro' commissioner, all right. But a lot of good it's doing him.
The way Goodell was booed every time he took the podium at the NFL draft last week would've made even the most self-actualized commissioner retreat to his situation room wondering what he did to deserve being treated like Steve Bartman at a Chicago Cubs fan convention.
It has to be difficult to come along and be part of unwanted history. In Goodell's case, that means being the front man and chief dartboard for a group of owners who seem intent on contemptuously treating their players like the help and fans like junkies who will always crave the NFL, no matter what it costs. But because he is the owners' front man, it's Goodell's job to sell the strategy. And that remains true even though Goodell is now following through on his ashes-and-sackcloth vow to forgo his $10 million salary for as long as the owners keep their lockout in place. (Memo to Rog: Don't ever make that fool promise again.)
Goodell's gesture was yet another attempted show of solidarity in a tenure that's been full of them. Which only makes it natural to wonder whether there isn't something in Goodell's better nature now that knows this is an unsustainable, not just highly unpopular, lockout war the owners have started with the players.
The fact that Goodell hasn't tried, or been able, to convince the 32 men who employ him that that's true has created the first real questions from the outside about his effectiveness as a leader.
Even Goodell's recent decision to choose The Wall Street Journal to publish his op-ed piece laying out the owners' latest arguments was rich with the sort of bad symbolism that must've had the league's original salesman, Pete Rozelle, rolling in his grave: Did the NFL, which has continued to print money in the worst economic times in U.S. history, really attempt to argue its lockout rationale to regular Joe fans via the most elitist newspaper in America, not to mention one of the few that has an online pay wall, which is sorta the newspaper equivalent of NFL personal seat licenses?
How fittingly awful. And how tone deaf.
The unintended takeaway was that you can read what the NFL believes, it's just gonna cost you, pal. But hey, what's new?
Of course, there is another explanation for why to write it for The Wall Street Journal, you know. And it makes the NFL look even worse: What if Goodell and the NFL weren't reaching out to Joe fan at all in that op-ed piece; what if their explicit but unspoken intent really was to talk over the paying customers' heads and directly to the titans of industry who buy league sponsorships and stadium suites and handle all those billion-dollar stadium deals? And if that's the case, how exponentially more elitist and cynical was that? Out of the way, we're not talking to you at all, you tailgating, hot-dog-loving, unwashed masses who pay $35 for game-day parking and $14 for warm beer and thousands more for Super Bowl tickets that -- oops! -- turned out to be obstructed view seats in folding chairs when 1,250 of you got to the game this year. As Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson might -- OK, has said before -- if we showed you a balance sheet, would you need help to understand it?
One of the more sublime pleasures I had watching the NFL draft last week was trying to project how the just-created shotgun marriage will go between Richardson and Cam Newton, the raw but gifted Auburn quarterback whom the Panthers just made the top pick in the NFL draft, if only because Richardson will have to pay Newton zillions more if the NFL's old labor rules stay in effect for another year instead of the owners getting that new rookie wage scale they're arguing for.
But maybe that flashed through my mind because their coupling revived a memory embedded deep in the attic of my brain: When I stilled worked for The Washington Post, I went to Redskins training camp one day to cover their hot-shot quarterback/first-round draft pick of the moment, Heath Shuler, and I wound up interviewing the Redskins' aristocratic owner Jack Kent Cooke, a billionaire whose nickname was The Squire because he wore only Savile Row suits and often took the practice field accompanied by his beloved cocker spaniel, Coco.
Cooke was a self-made man who got his start in business the hard way, selling encyclopedias door to door, and he made a grand show of saying, "Watch this" to me. Then: "Heath, my dear boy. Come over here."
Shuler dutifully jogged over, and he looked fresh-faced and buff and brimming with promise -- nothing like the draft bust-turned-legislator from Tennessee that he turned out to be. Cooke introduced us and exchanged some brief pleasantries. Then he dismissed Shuler back to practice and said to me, his voice dripping with sarcasm, "Nineteen million dollars." Droll pause. "And he 'earned' every penny."
I always think of Cooke's imperiousness when I see NFL owners treating players now as something closer to genetic freaks or laborers lashed to an oar on the Big Ship NFL rather than business partners.
Goodell's job often requires working the middle ground between the two now-warring sides. He's both the chief negotiator and chief conciliator, a man who is supposed to help create the vision of the league but still sell the company line even when he doesn't agree with his bosses' vision at all.
It must be small comfort to know the only reason he can't go down as The Man Who Killed Football is the prevailing wisdom that the NFL can't be killed. You can only interrupt it.
Still, that doesn't change the fact that this lockout is a naked cash grab by NFL owners whose appetite for money and government subsidies seems insatiable. Look at the stats: Forbes reported in 1997 that the average NFL team was worth $205 million. By 2007, it more than quadrupled to $898 million. Goodell bemoaned in his editorial that players' salaries have doubled in the past decade. What he fails to mention is that the NFL's income from 1993 to 2011 more than quadrupled, from $2 billion to more than $9 billion, and projected revenues will reach an astronomical $27 billion by 2025. Yet 18 of the NFL's 32 teams raised ticket prices on us in 2010.
Getting irritated yet?
Maybe Goodell wholeheartedly believes in the tack the NFL owners are taking. But even if he didn't, he could never say so.
These are tough times for the Bro' commissioner, all right.
Maybe the real reason Goodell made that phone call to Ochocinco was that he could use another hug.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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