Roger Goodell was right. Yes, it felt as weird to write that sentence as it does to read it. The NFL commissioner, the punching bag that everyone can justify thwacking, made a tough decision that could have been disastrous when he resisted pleas to postpone the draft. And it went well. Wonderfully well.
My goodness, 2020 keeps altering everything we thought we knew.
Since he took over as the league’s chief executive in 2006, Goodell has made plenty of mistakes, even when he has had the best intentions, and it has become a popular pastime to criticize his every move. But he is a human being. He is a round character like the rest of us. And at the end of a challenging virtual draft, the lasting impression should be that Goodell nailed it.
He was determined that the show go on despite the objections of several teams. During this pandemic, with the world in social distancing mode, it’s hard to figure out the proper thing to do in all aspects of life. When it comes to sports and entertainment, it’s tricky to weigh the public’s need for diversion against all the heavy stuff.
The NFL didn’t have to proceed on schedule, with the draft or with the free agency period before it. Pushing everything back a month or even two wouldn’t have been a big deal with so much of life on pause. But Goodell chose not to delay. While there were motivating business factors such as money, the players’ desire for certainty, material for television partners and the maintenance of its relevance as the most engrossing league in American sports, the commissioner also sensed the goodwill and civic benefit that preserving the offseason would provide. As long as the NFL did it for the right reasons — not just the selfish ones — it could be an oasis during a barren time.
In the execution of an entertaining draft, the NFL and ESPN exhibited an impressive level of planning and dexterity. It wasn’t perfect. It couldn’t have been perfect under these circumstances. But it was well produced, real and surprisingly intimate.
In an ESPN interview Saturday, New Orleans Coach Sean Payton made sure to mention how much he enjoyed it.
“This has gone so well,” Payton said.
Then he wondered whether elements of the virtual draft could remain in the future. Instead of the viewing experience including a big crowd and the headlining participants interacting in public, it was revealing to watch every major player at home, with family and all in dramatically different settings. The emotion of the draftees still came through, perhaps even more so because they were in a more comfortable environment. On the other side, you were able to see a greater glimpse of how coaches and general managers live. You even saw Dallas owner Jerry Jones on his $250 million superyacht.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see, maybe, some adjustments made,” Payton said of how drafts are televised moving forward.
This little virtual draft season started with Sabrina Ionescu being the No. 1 pick of the WNBA draft and continued through the monstrous seven-round NFL production. I watched every minute of both drafts and loved it, even the awkward pauses and the differences in lighting and connection speeds in various households.
I’m a fan of grand events and polished production. But you can’t consume live media in that way right now. In learning to adjust, you remember why reality television became so addictive before it got too fake and out of control. Everything doesn’t have to be slick when you can give people something real.
Over three days of this draft, the NFL didn’t come across as this enormous, self-important battle of gladiators. It was a league finding its way during an awkward period, trying to do good for an ailing world and welcoming all these exuberant young men into the family. Something about it felt better than the usual vibe: The king of all sports leagues holds an event to make dreams come true!
Dreams did come true. But medical professionals were presented like the heroes they are. Besides generating huge TV ratings, the league raised millions to donate to covid-19 relief efforts. All the while, Goodell was the ideal emcee, announcing the picks from his basement the first two days, having fun with how much he normally gets booed (he should have had his family join in, though) and slumping in his chair after he got tired.
This weekend was much needed. There didn’t seem to be any major glitches. Maybe fears about technology caused teams not to make as many trades early in the draft as they usually would have, but the logistics didn’t turn out to be crippling.
Goodell was adamant about doing this, and he wasn’t very tolerant of objections. He ignored the hassle and saw the bigger picture. He was right.
I have written thousands of words ripping Goodell when he messes up. You have had fun with his failures, too. But he deserves credit for his leadership in this case.
The odd thing about the villainization of Goodell: The man’s greatest flaw may be that he’s too concerned with public perception and trying to please people. No one likes being considered the bad guy, but he really hates it. Yet he couldn’t avoid the status. It’s partly because that is the nature of his job. But he doomed himself by seeking more power than he could handle.
As the years pass, he seems more concerned with peace than legacy. Maybe that will allow the real Goodell — just a regular, well-intentioned guy who’s quite pleasant in casual, private conversation — to stand out more than the stiff, king-of-the-unrelatable-world commissioner that you often boo.
The NFL still has some trying times left during this pandemic. There may be signs that the spread of the novel coronavirus is slowing down, but it still could affect the 2020 season. There is too much uncertainty to wade through. Chances remain high that, even if the NFL can play a full season, it won’t play before the usual crowds of 65,000. The leadership and vision of Goodell will continue to be challenged, and the stakes will be way higher than the decision to stage a virtual draft.
But it matters that Goodell aced this test, that he was strong and clear in his leadership and that he is doing the right thing for players this offseason, no matter how much teams grumble. That’s the essence of a commissioner. That’s the difference between running the entire league and merely representing the owners’ interests.
The first virtual NFL draft is over. It was a pain, and then it was a success. Goodell can recline that leather chair and take a nap. His dream — staying the course despite the difficulty — came true.
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