Commissioner Goodell Has Great Expectations for NFL

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 2, 2007

When Roger Goodell succeeded Paul Tagliabue as NFL commissioner, he inherited a wealthy, smooth-operating league devoid of major controversies. The transition promised to be so seamless that Goodell didn't even bother to stop his morning workout in his basement and take notice when he officially took over at 6 a.m. last Sept. 1.

Little did Goodell suspect there would be no easing into the job for which he'd been so thoroughly groomed as an NFL lifer. Goodell confronted a series of problematic issues, including the long-term health effects for NFL players of concussions and the dissatisfaction of some former players with their pensions and benefits. But one issue dwarfed the others, and Goodell attacked it head on. He aggressively tried to keep the league's mostly clean image polished by punishing players for off-field misbehavior far more harshly than Tagliabue, culminating nine days ago with the indefinite suspension of Michael Vick only hours after the Atlanta Falcons quarterback filed his plea agreement in his dogfighting case in federal court in Richmond.

"He has succinctly delivered a message of what the NFL stands for and what it expects," said David Carter, the executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. "He understands that falling short on these issues would hurt his brand and hurt the owners' ability to generate revenues for their franchises. Think how much more risk the NFL would have faced over the last year if it had brought in an outsider instead of someone who understood the business. He understands what it would mean if the sponsors came to regard the NFL as 'The Longest Yard.' "

The league had a player conduct policy before Goodell took office, but no player had been suspended for longer than four games under it. Goodell announced a toughened policy in April after consulting with players and securing the support of players' union chief Gene Upshaw. The new policy empowers the commissioner to fine, suspend or impose a lifetime ban on an offending player, and to sanction a team with many offending players. Goodell showed he meant business by suspending Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones for the entire 2007 season and Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry for the first half of it. He later suspended defensive tackle Tank Johnson, since released by the Chicago Bears, for a half-season.

Goodell may have pushed the boundaries of his authority under the conduct policy even further with last week's suspension of Bengals defensive end Frostee Rucker for one game for a domestic violence incident that occurred in 2005 when he was in college. The charges were filed after Rucker was drafted by the Bengals in 2006 and his no-contest plea to charges of vandalism and false imprisonment came in April. But the conduct that caused Rucker to be suspended came before he entered the league, and his agent has said that's the basis for Rucker's pending appeal.

Players interviewed during training camp said the strong message that Goodell sent had been received.

"He definitely got all of our attention," Baltimore Ravens defensive end Terrell Suggs said. "We're being more careful than we've been."

But Suggs and other players said they're wary that the conduct policy, which allows the commissioner to discipline a player even if he's not convicted of a crime, might give too much power to Goodell.

"He has to look to both sides of the story," said Suggs, who was acquitted in 2005 of an assault charge stemming from a 2003 altercation near a set of playground basketball courts in Phoenix. "In some cases, it's different. As you all know, I had a little incident where there was not alcohol involved. I wasn't at a nightclub. Trouble found me. I did everything in my power to prevent it and it didn't get prevented. In every case, you have to analyze and look at both sides of the story before making hard decisions and giving an eight-game and a year suspension out."

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb said in an interview early in his team's training camp he worries that a player given a lengthy suspension will only get into more trouble once he's removed from the structured environment that football provides.

"When some people get things like that taken away from them, they just continue to go down," said McNabb, who was among the players who met with Goodell while the conduct policy was being formulated. "You hope nothing but the best, that they've learned from their mistakes and move on so that they can get back out on the field and play. Being suspended for a year? That's tough. That's tough. . . . You just kind of want everything to work out well for everybody, work out well for us as well as work out well for those guys."

Goodell's resolute action is drawing praise from those who hired him, the owners of the NFL franchises.

"He grew up in this business," New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. "He understands, like we in ownership understand, that the American public wants to become emotionally involved in our teams and players. That's the reason these companies spend the money they do and these [television] networks spend the money they do. Certain behavior isn't tolerated by the American public. . . . I think Roger has set a tone that the vast majority of owners approve of."

Falcons owner Arthur Blank, though close to Vick, repeatedly praised Goodell's handling of the case, and said in a news conference last week: "I commend the commissioner for coming out strongly and definitively against player misconduct in this league. He has made it clear it will not be tolerated. I hope every player in the National Football League is listening."

The league recently launched a new advertising campaign with a familiar theme, emphasizing the positive on- and off-field attributes of featured players, as it tries to combat the recent damage to its image. Goodell grew up around politics and has a background in public relations; the son of the late New York senator Charles Goodell once was a PR underling for the New York Jets before working his way up the ranks in the league office to become Tagliabue's right-hand man as the NFL's chief operating officer. He said recently that all he's tried to do is make players realize they're held to a high standard and apply the conduct policy fairly.

"One thing that should be very clear on this one -- I am not concerned about whether it's a star player or the 53rd player," Goodell said just after ordering Vick not to report to training camp with the Falcons in late July. "There's no favoritism here. They all reflect on the National Football League. This obviously has gotten a great deal more attention because he is a quarterback and a terrific player. But it doesn't make any difference with respect to how we apply the personal conduct policy."

NFL officials declined to make Goodell available to be interviewed in recent days. Goodell spoke in late July, as the Vick controversy raged, about trying to return the public's focus to the game on the field.

"We've talked internally," he said. "We do everything we possibly can to make sure that the focus stays on the field. . . . Unfortunately when an incident like this occurs, you can see the attention that it brings. It overshadows a lot of the great things that people are doing, both on and off the field."

Goodell ultimately will be judged by the owners just as Tagliabue and his predecessor, Pete Rozelle, were judged: How much money does he make for them? From Tagliabue, Goodell inherited a thriving league with handsome TV contracts, one that's a $6 billion-a-year industry on its way to soon being an $8 billion-a-year industry. But he also inherited a longstanding labor peace that is suddenly uneasy; factions of owners still smarting over last year's tough negotiations between high-revenue and low-revenue franchises on a new revenue-sharing deal; ambitions to increase the sport's global appeal that haven't always translated into concrete gains; and an array of decisions needing to be made about new-technology media opportunities.

"It's digital media," Kraft said in a recent telephone interview. "It's the next labor deal, which will be very challenging. It's a lot of other initiatives, partnership arrangements with a lot of new companies. It's developing as a global business. It's getting younger fans, female fans. It's developing our six-day-a-week business along with our Sunday business. It's all these things, and I think Roger is studying them and prioritizing."

But so far, Kraft and the other owners seem pleased with the selection they made last year.

"It's a very challenging job," Kraft said. "I liken it to a treadmill where the incline keeps going up and the speed keeps going up. We were fortunate to pick a successor who was an exceptional choice, and he has confirmed that over the past year. He trained under two great commissioners, and I think that Roger learned a lot from them but also has incorporated his own style. It's very encouraging to see."

Special correspondent Rich Campbell contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company