Friday, May 25, 2007

Feared but respected – Roger Goodell ready to shine again

Not quite through his first full year as National Football League commissioner earlier this week Roger Goodell managed the latest quarterly NFL Board of Governors meeting. Not a great deal of new business was decided (except for the decision to award Super Bowl XLV to the Dallas Cowboys and their new 100,000 seat stadium). However once again when offered the opportunity to address the media (and therefore NFL fans everywhere) Goodell once again proved who’s running the NFL and doing an effective job.

“Super Bowl XLV has been awarded to North Texas. We also had a good discussion about concussion management and our conference that we’ll be having in June. We think that we are making some very significant progress in this area. We had a lengthy discussion about the medical needs of our retired players this afternoon. I think we’re making some significant steps there as well. We are making a $4 million investment, with the potential for the number to be as high as $8 million, in the Hall of Fame facility, which is an investment in the history of our game. The other highlight comes from an idea generated by the Player Advisory Council, which focuses on the importance of team captains taking a leadership role not only on their teams, but also in their communities. We’ll be putting more emphasis on that at the club level and the league level. Those are some of the highlights.”

The one day meeting was held in Nashville the current home of Adam “Pacman” Jones, the Tennessee Titans player suspended for the 2007 season for his deviant off-field behavior. While Goodell made it clear he hasn’t considered Jones appeal of the suspension, Goodell’s directness suggested if Pacman’s looking for a break he’d be advised to look elsewhere. Jones and his lawyers have suggested they’ll challenge Goodell’s decision to suspend Jones for an entire season through the courts if need be. Again while he didn’t discuss the topic you can almost sense Goodell would relish any appeal Jones intends to file. Goodell knows he has the full support of the NFL Players Association and Hall of Fame member Gene Upshaw the NFLPA’s executive director. Good luck Pacman keep on digging your grave.

Nonetheless Goodell was quick to admit decisions involving the NFL’s conduct code are easier said than done.

“It’s quite difficult. I mentioned to some players recently that my job is to look at them individually – look at each of the individual facts, each of the individual circumstances, and make a judgment on the consequences to the NFL. My job is to see how these actions impacted the integrity of the NFL. I have to also look at, as it relates to the other players, being fair-minded. What is appropriate discipline to issue?

“It is a difficult job. It’s probably the least-favorite part of my job. It’s difficult, particularly when you see young people who have made mistakes recognize those mistakes and try to improve themselves. I’m hopeful that they will.

“If they have the right to pursue it in federal court, and they choose to do that, it’s their prerogative. I’m worried about the National Football League.”

Is Goodell ready to address the legal ramifications of the NFL’s conduct code? Couldn’t a lawyer argue that it’s illegal to discipline or could a team release a player after he is arrested but before he is convicted?

“It is something that we have thought through very thoroughly. I certainly want to respect the rights of our players, and I intend to do so. We are not going to rush to judgment. I’ve said before that this is about players who are repeatedly finding themselves making mistakes. When that happens, you can be in the wrong place once, twice, maybe three times, but after a certain point, you are reflecting very negatively on the National Football League. It is my job – not law enforcement’s job – to protect the National Football League.”

It’s easy to understand why Goodell is finding support among the NFLPA. One of Goodell’s goals in the past few months as he made clear earlier this week is to ensure players aren’t forced to play when they’re injured.

“I have emphasized for several months now that medical needs and medical decisions must override competitive decisions. I think that’s critical. The whistle-blower concept is there to ensure that if anyone feels undue pressure or sees undue pressure to return to play before they are physically capable, then we will find that out on a confidential basis and look into it.”

On the eve of Super Bowl XLI former New England Patriot Ted Johnson told The New York Times and The Boston Globe at age 34 having retired and left football he was the shell of the man he once was. In a heartbreaking story Johnson recalled the 2002 season a year when he believed he suffered a serious of concussions and the Patriots never gave Johnson the chance to recover.

"Officially, I've probably only been listed as having three or four concussions in my career," Johnson said. "But the real number is closer to 30, maybe even more. I've been dinged so many times I've lost count."

For his part Goodell did his best to downplay the comments Johnson made to the Times and the Globe earlier this year.

“The most important part of this issue is that this does not begin with those reports. We have been studying this issue for close to 14 years and made significant medical advances. We are looking at this on a factual basis with outstanding doctors – some of whom are independent from the National Football League and our own doctors as well – who have made outstanding decisions.

“But you can always look forward, and this is an area that is evolving. We want to be ahead of the curve here. The safety and health of our players is most important.”

One issue made crystal clear by the man in charge – Goodell’s NFL Player Conduct Code isn’t going anywhere, at least as long as Roger Goodell is in charge.

“When you issue a conduct policy, that’s not the end of the issue. That’s the beginning of the issue. We made it very clear what was expected of players, coaches and anyone affiliated with the NFL. That standard is clear. From our standpoint, people understand that. I think they are responding to that.

“Any time there’s an incident, you’re disappointed in that, but that’s going to happen. We wanted to have a mechanism in place so that players know clearly what will happen, and that we will be aggressive in this area and deal with it. But incidents are going to happen, and we’ll deal with them. This isn’t the end of the road, it’s the beginning.”

The trials and tribulations of Michael Vick have been well documented in the pages of Sports Business News and everywhere else in the media. Goodell didn’t tip his hand when it came to discussing if he’s reached any decision about Vick’s immediate future.

“We are following it very closely. As you know, I met with Michael at the draft. I am very concerned about the issues revolving around Michael. He knows that. He pledged to me that he’s going to make changes in his life to address those. We’ll continue to monitor those.”

The latest ‘escapade’ involving Vick are allegations Vick was involved in an illegal dog fighting incident one that has drawn the attention of California Congressman Tom Lantos. Lantos sent a letter to Goodell, a letter he later made public.

“I am outraged that one of the National Football League’s superstars is affiliated with such a heinous enterprise as dog fighting,” Lantos wrote in the letter to Goodell. “Your strong rebuke of dog fighting – and those who promote it – will send the message that this all-too-prevalent practice has no place in a civilized society. I will view anything less than the strongest repudiation of Mr. Vick’s involvement as tacit support for this atrocious activity.”

Lantos is a senior member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. In 2005, the committee used its oversight powers to expose and to halt the use performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports. In his letter, he expressed his hope that the issue of animal fighting will not require further investigation into the behavior of NFL athletes.

“The commissioner has embarked on a laudable mission to promote responsibility among his players and to renew the notion that professional athletes are, in fact, role models,” Lantos said. “This is why I felt it important to write to him on this matter. Unless he means to condone animal exploitation and the criminal element that follows this nefarious practice, I suggest he keep a tight leash on his players.”

“I did get Congressman Lantos’ letter on late Friday afternoon. I appreciated his letter. I am sending him a letter back to make sure he understands my concern also in this. I do share his concern. On the other hand, I want to make sure we understand the facts before we make a decision on this, and the facts are still unclear.” Goodell offered on Lantos’ letter.

Leadership is not only making the tough decisions but making the right choices when enacting a new policy especially one filled with as much potential controversy as Goodell’s conduct code. Pacman Jones, Chris Henry both men have been arrested more than five times each following various run-ins with the police. To date, Michael Vick hasn’t been arrested once. Vick is guilty of bad judgment, but there aren’t grounds for Goodell to suspend Vick.

There have been recent reports suggesting the NFL is going to shorten the decision time between NFL draft picks in the first and second round. Whether or not it’s a good football or marketing move it will be Roger’s decision to make as he told everyone. And the time frame of any change is up to Goodell.

“I asked the Competition Committee to give me its position on shortening the rounds in the draft. It is a decision of the commissioner to dictate how the draft will be conducted. I wanted to get their view of the competitive aspects. What’s important from a team’s perspective to make sure it has the proper ability to make good decisions as far as selecting personnel?

“The other side of that is – what’s best for our fans? That is something I’m balancing now. What’s in the best interests of continuing to grow something that has become an extraordinary offseason event? We had nearly 40 million people watch this year. We think there is an ability to grow beyond that. We’re looking to see how we can do that in a responsible fashion for our fans. That could be everything from having the draft in primetime to shortening the rounds or some combination thereof.

“I didn’t give the owners any expectations other than I would look at the research, look at any other information or evaluations we have, talk to our partners and probably make a decision by early fall.”

The measure of a sport should be how they treat the men (or women) who built their sport. The National Football League maybe a business that generates more than $6 billion annually, maybe a business that collectively brings in $3.75 billion annually in TV revenues but the NFL’s owes much of its success to the pioneers who led the way in the NFL’s early years. Many former NFL’ers must wonder if they where born 30 or 40 years too early. Nothing can change that, but Goodell appears determined to not only respect the legacy these Gridiron greats left, but ensure they get a well deserved taste of the NFL’s business success.

“What we’re trying to do with the alliance is to make sure we pool our resources and efforts to make sure we’re being responsible in this area. We each are making individual efforts with respect to each group’s membership. The NFL Alumni is looking at alumni; the Hall of Fame is looking at its members; the NFLPA has a retired membership. We are doing some programs jointly. We have NFL Charities, which is committing a significant amount of money in this area.

“What we wanted to do is pool these different groups together, put a focus on this, and try to find responsible steps. We’ve outlined some of the steps that we’ve been talking about, including finding healthcare facilities that can provide quality medical assistance at reasonable cost to our former players. We think that’s something that might have some potential. Assisted living facilities – could you create assisted living facilities that would provide the type of necessary care for some players that may be facing those issues?

“The cost of it is certainly a big issue. Health care is a huge issue in this country and worldwide, and it’s an issue for us. We’re going to look at how to do this responsibly. We’re not looking to increase our player costs right now, but we’re trying to be responsible in this area.”

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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