ROSS, WATSON … DOES ROGER GOODELL HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT HE’S DOING?
Faultless in the eyes of the owners he protects, the NFL commissioner has botched the Watson case — why did he appoint a neutral arbitrator? — while going soft on Ross, despite tampering and tank talk
Sixteen years have passed since Roger Goodell, hanging out in his boxer shorts, heard a knock at the door of his suburban Chicago hotel room. He put on trousers, rest assured, before greeting Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who came with results from the balloting downstairs.
“Hello, Commissioner,” said Rooney, delivering the news that changed pro football forever.
Since then, it hasn’t mattered how many times Goodell has been caught with his pants down. He is the darling of the NFL’s billionaire boys club, which long has forgotten any issues with him — remember when Jerry Jones tried to execute a whiny coup — to focus its gaze on a glittering bottom line. In his tenure, Goodell has turned the industry into a revenue machine unprecedented in American sports, if not the entertainment world. He overcame the league’s numerous crises of the last decade, ranging from brain damage to Colin Kaepernick’s racism crusade to a slew of player arrests, and maneuvered through a pandemic to rally more fans than ever to TV screens, gambling apps and stadium seats.
Beginning next year, through 2033, the league will collect about $120 billion in media payouts from broadcast networks and streamers. Tonight, somewhere in Ohio, millions will watch a meaningless Hall of Fame Game that launches a season that already is making America pant and drool. So, naturally, the commissioner is beholden to the owners who pay his salary. He does what they tell him to do, more or less, the expectation for $128 million in compensation over the last two fiscal years and a forthcoming contract extension. That’s why no one should be shocked about the chaos engulfing the league this week. Goodell always takes care of the owners first, no matter how grimy and dishonest their transgressions, and if the media and paying customers protest — as we are at present — so be it.
You know and I know that Goodell has stumbled spectacularly ... twice. The Deshaun Watson debacle is a storm of the commissioner’s doing. A months-long drama has dragged into August — and likely into a federal courtroom, once the NFL Players Association sues the NFL — when the league should have resolved the personal conduct case long ago. To make sense of the nonsensical, Goodell approved a new disciplinary process that transferred judge-and-jury powers from him to third-party officer Sue L. Robinson. If he had any doubts the system would backfire on the league, he shouldn’t have signed off on it jointly with the players union. He’s the commissioner, right? He would look quite reckless and inept if he balked at Robinson’s ruling the first time out — especially in an ultra-sensitive case where a star quarterback is accused by 25 women of sexual assault and other inappropriate conduct during massage sessions.
Well, that’s exactly what Goodell has done. He has taken the reckless and inept route. He cried foul after her verdict, seeing Watson’s mere six-game suspension without a fine as disturbingly light. Or, at least that’s what he thinks now after gauging public opinion in recent days, with media commentators (myself included) excoriating the NFL for allowing a process that would yield such a soft punishment. Um, Roger, why appoint a neutral arbitrator if you’re going to end up over-riding the result? Why didn’t you just tell the union in the first place that you’d continue as the sole judge in conduct cases? Or, were you so quick to appease the owners on the labor front that you haphazardly agreed to an independent officer?
There is nothing to trust about any of this. Under the new system, Goodell can reclaim the power and either make the decision himself or appoint a designee. Thursday morning, he said he would appoint another third party outside the league office. By Friday, who knows? WTF? How does he know the next “designee” won’t reach the same conclusion Robinson did? Clearly, Goodell never should have relinquished his power. But, then, his “appeal” could be nothing more than a public-relations ploy to keep the blame onus on Robinson and “the designee” as he protects Watson’s boss, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, one of the owners who serve as Goodell’s bosses. If he truly wants to punish Watson with an indefinite suspension for a minimum of one year, Goodell can and should apply the harsher penalties himself — immediately. Will this saga spill into September? Don’t the Browns have a 17-game season to play? Don’t they deserve to know when or if Watson is eligible, and whether they should consider acquiring Jimmy Garoppolo?
Well, not if he’s just playing a poker game with the NFLPA. Not if he’s taking care of another owner in a quandary, which is a major part of his job description, quite obviously.
For instance, Goodell should be leading the charge to oust Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who played fast and easy with the league’s sacred competitive integrity when he violated the anti-tampering policy three times — while making clear to Dolphins officials that he prioritized draft positioning over winning games. In doing so, Ross was advocating tanking, taboo in any context but particularly as the league jumps into business bed with gambling companies. And by reaching out directly to Tom Brady and making indirect contact with Sean Payton, when both were under contract with other teams, Ross and his underlings had no interest in obeying the most important rules in the NFL handbook.
Yet Goodell tapped him on the wrist with penalties much lighter than warranted, his usual modus operandi when disciplining problem owners. Ross was suspended for a few weeks into mid-October, fined a laughable $1.5 million and can’t attend a league meeting until 2023, which he might view as a blessing. The Dolphins will forfeit a first-round pick next year and a third-rounder in 2024, but Ross pretty much skates. As for the tanking allegation made by former Dolphins coach Brian Flores, who said Ross offered him $100,000 for every loss in 2019? Goodell made a mockery of the claim by believing Ross’ explanation that it was a joke — “(it) was not intended or taken to be a serious offer.”
Ha, ha, ha. Very funny. The NFL commissioner wants us to believe he cares deeply about integrity. But in the same breath, he finds humor in a situation where the league’s probe discovered Ross and vice chairman Bruce Beal had made the same draft-over-victories comments to team president and CEO Tom Garfinkel, general manager Chris Grier and senior vice president Brandon Shore. No wonder Flores lashed out in a statement, expressing disappointment Ross “will avoid any meaningful consequence” and that the league “minimized Mr. Ross’s offers and pressure to tank games especially when I wrote and submitted a letter at the time to Dolphins executives documenting my serious concerns regarding this subject.”
The Ross ruling, or lack thereof, reminds us that Goodell has no interest in shaking down Daniel Snyder and pushing for new ownership atop the Washington Commanders. Congress wants Snyder’s hide and summoned him for questioning, amid widespread allegations of workplace misconduct and sexual harassment. Goodell won’t join the hunt, hoping the furor fades away. This is how he does his job. He addresses issues, sort of, and gauges public perception. It’s the survivalist tactic of a man who prefers to keep the league peace when his scope should seek a higher ethical plane.
He talks a good game. “Every club is expected to make a good faith effort to win every game," Goodell said of Ross. "The integrity of the game, and public confidence in professional football, demand no less. An owner or senior executive must understand the weight that his or her words carry, and the risk that a comment will be taken seriously and acted upon, even if that is not the intent or expectation. Even if made in jest and not intended to be taken seriously, comments suggesting that draft position is more important than winning can be misunderstood and carry with them an unnecessary potential risk to the integrity of the game.”
The statement sounds considerably more serious than the punishment, doesn’t it?
It’s possible the NFL is so prosperous and invulnerable in 2022 that no one man can screw it up. Roger Goodell is trying his best to create a hot mess anyway, and all I can say is, it’s time to put some clothes on.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.