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Originally published January 30, 2015 at 7:20 PM | Page modified January 31, 2015 at 3:17 PM

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Roger Goodell still a commissioner under siege

Roger Goodell said a lot of words Friday at his annual State of the Game news conference but few of substance. And none that will change anyone’s minds.

Seattle Times columnist


PHOENIX — Roger Goodell said a lot of words Friday at his annual State of the Game news conference, but few of substance. And none that will change anyone’s minds.

He is still a commissioner under siege. And it will not be Goodell’s words that restore confidence in his ability to lead the NFL through an unprecedented series of challenges. It might, in fact, already be too late for that.

The Super Bowl on Sunday officially will conclude one of the worst years any sports league has had to endure. Even this showcase game for the NFL has been distracted by the latest in a long line of incidents: Deflate-gate.

In his opening remarks, Goodell called this “a terrific year of football.” No, it wasn’t. Not when you had the Ray Rice debacle (along with other cases of domestic violence), the Adrian Peterson mess, the ongoing debate over concussions and player safety, and now the kerfuffle over whether the New England Patriots doctored their footballs in the AFC title game.

This latter case might turn out to be much ado about little. But even if that’s the judgment, the commissioner’s close relationship with Patriots owner Robert Kraft (who one unnamed executive calls the “assistant commissioner,” according to a damning GQ article on Goodell), raises the issue of a conflict of interest. And not for the first time.

Goodell’s tenure as commissioner has been dotted with troublesome cases, from the dogfighting conviction of Michael Vick to Spygate and Bountygate. (General rule of thumb: If one commish has three “gates”on his watch, something is amiss.)

Goodell fumbled the Rice case so badly — either lying about whether the NFL had obtained the elevator video released by TMZ, or showing a shocking lack of resolve in doing so — that the firestorm was immense. A bumbling performance in a news conference designed to clear the air merely did more damage.

Even Friday, one of the questions from a reporter was whether Goodell expected owners to cut his pay (which is an astounding $44 million package). Another was even more blunt:

“Many people in America, if they went through the year that you’ve had, probably would have resigned or been fired. Can you envision any set of circumstances that would lead you to resigning or being fired from your job as commissioner?“

Goodell’s response: “No, I can’t. Does that surprise you?”

He continued, “Listen, it has been a tough year. It’s been a tough year on me personally. It’s been a year of what I would say is humility and learning. We, obviously as an organization, have gone through adversity.

“More importantly, it’s been adversity for me. We take that seriously. It’s an opportunity for us to get better. It’s an opportunity for us, for our organization, to get better. We’ve all done a lot of soul-searching, starting with yours truly.”

But Goodell’s credibility is at a low ebb. Though he extolled the NFL’s progress in the area of domestic violence Friday, I received an email from the feminist group, UltraViolet, with this statement from co-founder Nita Chaudhary:

“Goodell has clearly lost touch with America, as the public’s faith in the NFL is plummeting. The NFL’s leadership vacuum on the issue of domestic violence continues to hurt the league. Polling shows women are fed up, a huge problem for a league currently relying on women for their future growth. The facts remain: under Goodell’s watch 55 cases of domestic violence went unanswered. The NFL needs leadership to get out of this mess, and Goodell is no leader.”

Compounding matters is the fact that NFL players seem to be losing faith in Goodell. The union is fighting the personal-conduct policy that was approved by owners. Players wonder why Goodell talks about player safety but continues to subject them to games on Thursday and toys with an 18-game season.

Players such as Richard Sherman have been emboldened to speak out. This week, Sherman predicted the Patriots wouldn’t be punished and added, “Not as long as Robert Kraft and Roger Goodell are still taking pictures at their respective homes. (Goodell) was just at Kraft’s house last week before the AFC championship. Talk about conflict of interest. As long as that happens, it won’t affect them at all.”

How does Goodell keep his job? Easy. There’s one part of it he does brilliantly — figure out ways to increase the NFL revenue flow. League revenues are at $11 billion and rising, with Goodell publicly stating a few years ago that his goal is $25 billion in annual revenue by 2027.

So far, the NFL has been remarkably bulletproof. No matter how ugly the scandal or off-field incident with which the league is hit, the sport’s popularity is untouched. If anything, it seems to grow.

But you have to wonder how many blows the league can endure before that trend is reversed and football starts to lose its hold on America. Especially with studies showing that more parents are preventing their kids from playing football because of injury concerns.

Last year, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban predicted the NFL was 10 years from an implosion because of its greed. He said the insatiable thirst for evermore revenue streams comes with a backlash.

“I’m just telling you, when you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you,’’ Cuban told a reporter last March. “That’s rule No. 1 of business.”

I think Cuban’s timetable might be a little too compact. But in the GQ article, former commissioner Paul Tagliabue voiced a similar sentiment regarding what the author, Gabriel Sherman, called “Goodell’s laser focus on profit and his combative stance toward players.”

Tagliabue told Sherman, “If they see you making decisions only in economic terms, they start to understand that and question what you’re all about. There’s a huge intangible value in peace. There’s a huge intangible value in having allies.”

Right now, Goodell’s prime allies are the 32 owners. For the NFL to continue to thrive and not just prosper, he needs to win back the rest of his constituency. In action, not words.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146


On Twitter @StoneLarry

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About Larry Stone

Larry Stone gives his take on the local and national sports scene.


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