The difficult challenges Goodell has faced recently did, however, give me a chance to reexamine praise I’ve bestowed on him before. In my 2011 book, “Fixing the Game: Bubbles, Crashes and What Capitalism can Learn from the NFL,” I lauded Goodell, as well as his predecessors Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue, for maintaining a laser-like focus on the fan experience over their half-century at the helm of the NFL. And indeed, the league’s astonishing success—the NFL, now a $9 billion industry, is immensely profitable—proves the single-minded strategy has helped to build a blockbuster business.
But the series of tough choices Goodell has been forced to make since my book’s completion illustrate the problems for leaders who focus too much on one thing. At times, Goodell has overemphasized the fan experience to the detriment of players. At other moments, he’s lost focus on the fans, giving too much preference to owners’ interests. Another major scandal highlighted Goodell’s unbalanced treatment of accused players and his emotional rush to judgment.
Consider his 2011 negotiations with the players’ league. In them, Goodell aggressively bargained to convert two preseason matchups into regular season games. Making the change would have lowered the number of preseason games from four to two, increasing the regular season to 18 games, rather than 16. The rationale was fan experience. NFL devotees aren’t enamored with the half-hearted efforts and third-string players featured in most preseason exhibitions. Adding more regular season games, Goodell’s thinking went, would please the fans, which in due course would raise profits for the owners.
But he didn’t do enough to think through how an extended regular season would sit with the players, and the plan was rejected. Players saw the proposal as a danger to their health and welfare, extending an already brutally long season. The proposal undermined the apparent sincerity of Goodell’s efforts to reduce the frequency and severity of head injuries in the league, an issue that has gone from serious to white-hot in 2012. In the end, more balance was needed from Goodell in making this decision. A better fan experience shouldn’t have completely trumped player health and welfare.
Then in 2012, Goodell locked out the NFL’s unionized referees as bargaining reached an impasse during the spring and summer. Here, Goodell clearly put the owners’ interests first. He assumed that the negative impact to fans and players of using replacement referees would be minimal and that the “real referees,” as they came to be called, would be forced to ameliorate their demands, saving the owners money.