It seems unlikely that anything could threaten Roger Goodell’s grip on the position of NFL commissioner, with each year setting fresh records for profits, but Goodell’s handling of domestic-violence incidents and DeflateGate now has owners and players talking about the scope of his powers. And that could be significant.
A message was sent “quietly” — as MMQB’s Peter King deemed it — by San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York over the weekend about Goodell’s powers, echoing comments by Jonathan Kraft, the New England Patriots’ president and son of owner Robert Kraft, that NFL discipline should be “rethought for the modern era.” Of course, the Patriots have considerable skin in the game over DeflateGate, but York chose to share Kraft’s message on Twitter. King writes:
I found it very interesting Sunday that 49ers CEO Jed York — who has a chance to be a smart future steward of the game — retweeted an Adam Schefter message about Patriots president Jonathan Kraft saying it might be time to reconsider how player discipline is handled by the NFL. … York and the younger Kraft are two of the most respected leaders of tomorrow the league has. Interesting that they, like many league followers, seem to want Roger Goodell out of the unending quicksand of problem cases.
Kraft’s message was delivered in measured, thoughtful tones on 98.5 The Hub in Boston.
“I think the world has changed and the complexity of some of the situations — things that I don’t think we ever thought we would be dealing with, we’re dealing with,” Kraft said on 98.5 The Hub, via ESPN.com.
“I think the league office, with the business of football, there is so much to handle day to day, and so much to do. I think there needs to be a prescribed process for how certain parts of the discipline process are going to work, especially probably the appeals, so that the spotlight and the attention doesn’t all have to fall on Park Avenue. I’m not saying Park Avenue is capable or not capable. I’m not making a value judgment with what I’m saying. I think I’m just making a big-picture macro observation.”
Kraft’s father delivered a scathing public rebuke after Goodell upheld quarterback Tom Brady’s four-game suspension, saying, “I was wrong to put my faith in the league.” But comments like that from the owners’ circle are rare. More often, they subtly and succinctly deliver suggestions. New York Giants co-owner John Mara is one of the masters of that and it was significant last week when he admitted that he was sick and tired of DeflateGate, which has still not been resolved over seven months since the accusations were first made. He remains, however, supportive of Goodell.
“I just want it to be over with one way or the other,” Mara said of DeflateGate in a WFAN interview. “We’re all tired of hearing about it.”
It’s less significant when a player speaks out, unless the player is a top tackle pointing out the league’s deal with the devil. Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns criticized Goodell for punishing Brady as severely as some players have been punished for domestic incidents and testing positive for banned substances. Thomas pointed out that the NFL was only too happy to alter rules about game-ball preparation to please Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees a few years back.
“I would equate what [Brady] did to driving 66 [mph] in a 65 speed zone, and getting the death penalty,” he told ESPN’s Pat McManamon.
Thomas noted that the NFL has profited mightily from the way in which it has dominated headlines. There’s no such thing as bad PR.
“I’m not sure if he realizes what he’s doing is brilliant, but what he’s doing is brilliant because he’s made the NFL relevant 365 [days a year] by having these outrageous, ridiculous witch hunts,” Thomas said. “It’s made the game more popular than ever and it’s become so much more of an entertainment business and it’s making so much money.
“That’s why I’m sure there’s plenty of people saying this is embarrassing for the league. But it’s an entertainment business when it comes right down to it. When the game gets eyeballs in newspapers and on TV, that’s what in the end is the goal for everyone. And that’s what this controversy is giving them.”
Thomas is happy that Brady is fighting the suspension with all his might.
“I’m glad that he’s fighting [it],” Thomas said. “Because it’s good for the game. It’s an entertainment business. It’s turning into the WWE really. It’s like the Vince McMahon stuff. Basically Goodell is like Vince McMahon.”
Even though voices are becoming louder, Goodell’s hold on his job may not be diminishing. Still, that doesn’t mean that his powers won’t be curtailed.
A man who rose through the ranks of the NFL and who is more gifted at politicking than PR, Goodell knows exactly how to keep his job. Commissioners generally are also in office for life, serving at the pleasure of billionaire owners. His contract runs through the 2018 season and, since the NFL’s modern era began in 1960, there have been only three commissioners, each of whom has wielded more and more power and influence. With labor peace secured through the 2020 season and TV deals in place, Goodell isn’t likely to be shown the door.
But that doesn’t mean that he won’t be under increasing pressure to stop being the league’s sheriff. Eric Winston, the president of the NFL Players Association, told the Post’s Mark Maske that he believes a neutral arbitrator must be brought into ensure that player discipline is fairly dished out when owners and players get serious about negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. Players’ confidence in Goodell as a disciplinarian, he said, is “long gone.”
“It would be hard to imagine any new deal if there’s not a change,” Winston said. “I can’t imagine taking a new deal back to the players and say personal conduct isn’t going to change.”
Goodell’s biggest legacy may be a very different job description for the NFL commissioner, no matter who holds the office.