Labor peace is Goodell’s biggest challenge
By Jason Cole, Yahoo! Sports
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NEW YORK – Tucked in the far corner of a built-in shelf along the wall of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s corner office, located on the 17th floor overlooking midtown Manhattan, is a pair of odd-looking boots.
They’re a hybrid pair, a cross between those worn for heavy hiking and the insulated type people use for skiing. Next to the boots is a picture of Goodell wearing them as he scaled the snow-and-ice encrusted, 14,410-foot summit of Mount Rainier in Washington last summer.
Along the way, there are points in the path where the ice and snow have split, exposing crevasses that sometimes drop more than a hundred feet. Climbers are expected to skip over the gaps, a task that sounds simple although a misstep means death. An 18-inch gap becomes the mental equivalent of Bob Beamon’s world-record long jump.
Climbing Rainier is one of those life-altering experiences, in the same vein as skydiving or other survivalist events. If you can do that, just about anything else seems workable – even settling a potentially bitter financial argument among 32 billionaires and more than a thousand millionaires.
As Goodell officially begins his fifth season as commissioner of America’s most popular sport, he is looking up at negotiations over the collective bargaining agreement, the figurative summit of a $9 billion mountain. Goodell has received rave reviews from league owners, earned the appreciation of the media and has generally been well-received by players and fans (even the ones who were critical of how he handled Spygate). But perhaps no situation will define his job performance and legacy more than how he navigates the CBA talks with the NFL Players Association to avoid the league’s first work stoppage since 1987.
“It’s a huge issue, no question, and leaders get judged by the big decisions,” New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft said in August during a league meeting in Atlanta. “But Roger isn’t alone on this. He has a lot of help from lots of different people in the league office and around the league.”
The second half of that statement sounds like a throwaway comment – it’s anything but. One of the greatest complaints among owners about previous commissioner Paul Tagliabue was that Tagliabue made decisions on an island, surrounded by a small inner circle of advisers and a precious few owners.
By contrast, Goodell, who worked closely with Tagliabue in the league office, is a listener with strong capacity to coalesce myriad opinions into a decision.
“You can certainly put me among those who rave about him,” Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank said. “One of the greatest attributes of a leader is the ability to listen. There are plenty of leaders who say they want to listen, but they really don’t. You sit there and talk to them, but they’ve tuned you out and you know it. Roger truly listens. He doesn’t always agree, but he listens and that way you feel like you’ve had your say.”
Goodell is very aware of the noted strength.
“I think the first time you think you have all the answers you’re in trouble,” said Goodell, who has been employed by the NFL in some capacity since 1982. “I think you often have to take positions, put concepts out and you’ve hopefully been thoughtful about that. I’m a big believer in the third concept. Someone may have concept A and someone may come with concept B, but quite frequently it is concept C after discussion and people look at it from different perspectives. I think that’s what we are trying to do here. Be reasonable. Be fair. Try to find the right kind of agreement that will allow everyone to benefit. It doesn’t work if one side benefits and the other does not.”
That was certainly the case in 2006, when Tagliabue, then only months from retiring, forced through a CBA proposal that didn’t account for long-term issues. Those problems, including the inordinate growth of the salary cap compared with player salaries, were made more acute by the economic downturn of 2008.
In short, Goodell now has to fix a problem that has been a long time in the making, but is a deeply sore subject between the sides. That was made clear by some players during his visit to training camps this summer, as was chronicled by colleague Michael Silver. Still, he has to assuage paying customers who find the whole issue deeply annoying.
“The fans don’t want to hear about our problems, they just want to see our games,” New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch said. “They don’t want to hear about collective bargaining or the salary cap or hear us arguing about who’s getting how much.”
Goodell and NFL PA head DeMaurice Smith figure to be engaged in a lot more discussion in upcoming months.
(Charles Daraphak/AP Photo)
Unfortunately, since 2008, when NFL owners opted out of the current CBA upon the conclusion of this season, the tension over what will happen has grown. Speculation about a possible lockout in 2011 has been constant. There is increasing distrust between the players and owners, and general disgust among the fans over this issue.
In the center of taking that distrust and disgust and keeping it from being complete dissonance is Goodell. If his first four years on the job are an indication, there appears to be hope.
When enough is enough
In the summer of 2009, Goodell sat in his office looking at gruesome pictures of the accident in which then-Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte’ Stallworth(notes) hit and killed a pedestrian in Miami Beach, Fla., in the pre-dawn hours of a March day. Stallworth’s attorney, David Cornwell, was trying to explain how under Florida law, the pedestrian was at least partially at fault even though Stallworth had been charged with driving under the influence.
Cornwell had successfully used the defense to gain leniency for Stallworth, who received a 30-day sentence, got out after 24 and reached a financial settlement with the family of the victim.
Now, Cornwell was looking for similar leniency from the NFL.
Goodell listened and listened, but then grew frustrated with the legalese. As the son of a politician, Goodell has developed a good meter for what is legal vs. what is right and wrong. At that moment, Goodell slammed the binder of photos shut and said, “I don’t care about all of that, someone is dead and one of our players is responsible.”
Goodell later suspended Stallworth for an entire season. Stallworth’s suspension was a hotly debated topic. Some thought it wasn’t enough, others thought it was too much. Regardless of where people stood in the debate, Goodell did not arrive at the decision without hearing what plenty of people had to say.
One of Goodell’s first orders of business as commissioner was to deal with player conduct. His test case was Adam “Pacman” Jones, a recalcitrant player who was in the middle of an incident in a Las Vegas strip club that left one man paralyzed after being shot during NBA All-Star weekend.
That incident, complete with Jones “making it rain” with cash at a strip club, encapsulated the essence of athletes gone wild. The image was damaging throughout the NFL, particularly to the majority of players who felt they were living respectable lives.
In arriving at what is now known as the personal conduct policy, Goodell talked to numerous players, coaches and owners. Unlike Tagliabue, a lawyer who would wait to punish players until after they were done in the courts, Goodell has taken a more proactive position.
“I was really impressed with the commissioner when he talked about the importance of the shield [NFL logo],” said Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren. “I think that resonated with a lot of people and made us all think about what was important, the kind of people you deal with, what they care about, what you care about.”
Players generally agree.
“Part of you doesn’t like that the commissioner has to do this,” said Baltimore wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes), who was part of a panel of players Goodell sat down with in April 2007 to discuss the policy. “You’d like to think guys would get the message, but it doesn’t happen. Like I said, we got guys who were raised a lot different than the past. It’s not the same way anymore.
“The commissioner wants to hear that. He wants to know what’s going on in the locker room, how to control it, how to work with guys. Sometimes that means you have to be tough. Hey, it ain’t any different with my kids.”
In addition to hearing what owners and players have to say about policies, Goodell has actually sat in the stands for games to get a feel for the fan experience and how to improve it. He traveled constantly during training camp, seeing teams and fans along the way. This year, he attended the Green Bay Packers’ shareholders meeting to answer questions.
He has been unafraid to bridge the gap between management and customer in a business that’s built on entertainment and perception.
As a result of taking in ideas from multiple places – something that powerful business leaders such as Steve Jobs constantly do &nash; Goodell has come up with twists on the way the NFL does business. This year, for instance, the Pro Bowl was moved to the Sunday between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. It was also moved to Miami, the site of the Super Bowl. While some players complained, primarily about the game being moved from Hawaii (it returns there next year), the bottom line is that the game featured the highest attendance and television ratings it has ever received. The Pro Bowl also was sponsored for the first time (McDonald’s put up the cash). In a business that depends on advertisers, that was a boon.
Goodell was well-received by Jared Odrick(notes) and other rookies at this year’s NFL draft.
(Howard Smith/US Presswire)
Goodell also altered the NFL draft, pushing it from two days to three and putting the first round in prime time this year on a Thursday night. Again, the reaction was positive with record ratings.
Now comes talk of an expanded season, the league hoping to turn the regular season into 18 games. That figures to be a hit with the television networks and fans. Goodell just needs to figure out a way to sell it to the players. That gets back to the CBA.
Goodell didn’t earn much credit from players recently when he told some during training camp that, in essence, he also represents their interests. However, many players understand the big picture of where Goodell is trying to go with the expanded schedule, which would include decreasing the preseason schedule to two contests.
“The commissioner is hired by the owners and works for the owners, everybody knows that,” Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Richard Seymour(notes) said. “The 18-game schedule isn’t going to be popular with players. We’re already beat up enough.
“But if you can find a way for the owners and players to make more money, we’re all going to be for that. Let’s not kid each other.”
Or as Goodell said himself last month: “If we’re all smart about this, there will be an opportunity to grow the revenue. It will be better received by everybody. That’s where the potential is for all of us. That’s what we have to use as an opportunity for the players and the owners to reach a new labor agreement and the fans to continue to get great quality football and more of it that they find meaningful.”