By Jordan Kobritz
It’s tough to feel any sympathy towards someone who earns $44 million a year, gets free access to any sporting event on the planet and presumably doesn’t have to wait in line to be seated at his favorite restaurant. But NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell may be the exception to the rule.
Goodell has spent the last eight years overseeing the slickest, most efficient, Teflon coated sport in America. Regardless of the controversy—be it inconsistent and oftentimes arbitrary player discipline, ham-handed negotiations with the player’s union or the billion dollar concussion lawsuit—there have always been two constants. Goodell has continued to line team owner’s pockets and he has been rewarded handsomely for his stewardship. League revenue will approach $10 billion this year, on track to achieve Goodell’s stated goal of $25 billion by 2025. No wonder owners have been steadfast in their support of the man who has suffered the slings and arrows of the players, Congress and the media.
Even during the escalating Ray Rice controversy, while a number of organizations and correspondents have called for Goodell’s ouster, many owners have come out publicly in support of their commissioner. But unlike past controversies, their comments have been somewhat measured. The tepid support suggests that if additional information surfaces about what Goodell knew or saw (i.e. the second video of Ray Rice cold cocking his then girlfriend in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino and when he knew it), they reserve the right to change their opinion.
While fans are opposed to violence off the field they have a seemingly unquenchable thirst for mayhem on the field. When the NFL released a study suggesting that nearly one in three former players will suffer a debilitating brain injury, a rate at least twice as high as it is in the general public, it had no effect on attendance or TV viewership. We can’t seem to live without our football.
Currently, league sponsors—who have enriched the NFL’s coffers by hitching their wagons to the brand or shield, to use one of Goodell’s favorite words—also appear to be united in support of the commissioner. Companies like TD Waterhouse, FedEx, Verizon and Marriott have stated that while the NFL may have initially fumbled its handling of the Rice situation, they are confident that Goodell’s explanation of why he took the action he did is accurate. But if the tide turns and sponsors threaten to take their megabucks elsewhere, even if such action is highly unlikely given the paucity of alternatives to the NFL’s marketing impact, the owners may not have any choice but to jettison Goodell.
There are only two issues that concern Goodell’s employers: money and credibility. Fortunately for Goodell, he has the first issued covered. But unfortunately for him, the first issue is dependent on the second, namely his and the league’s credibility. And therein lies the commissioner’s conundrum. If former FBI Director Robert Mueller III, who was hired by the league to investigate the Rice matter, uncovers evidence that Goodell was aware of the second tape when he imposed a two-game suspension of Rice in June, then the commissioner has in effect lied to his owners, the league’s partners and the American public.
In that event, the commissioner’s credibility will be shot. Cries for Goodell’s ouster, currently emanating from a few isolated voices, are likely to rise to a veritable crescendo. A snowball rolling downhill will almost instantly morph into a full-blown avalanche. No amount of financial success will protect Goodell. His support among team owners will evaporate, leaving him on an island of quicksand.
But don’t write off Goodell just yet. He may be skating on thin ice, but all is not lost. Even though the NFL acquiesced to demands that the league appoint an outside party to conduct a thorough investigation of the Rice scandal, they made every effort to protect their golden boy. Mueller works for a law firm that previously represented both the league and the two owners that he will report to and who are overseeing the investigation. The Giants’ John Mara and Art Rooney II of the Steelers are among Goodell’s staunchest supporters in the boardroom.
In the end the Rice controversy may be just another scar on Goodell’s heretofore impenetrable facade.
(Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. Jordan can be reached at email@example.com.)