Friday, September 07, 2007

Roger Goodell and the National Football League – We’re ready for some football II

The 2007 National Football League kicked off last night in Indianapolis when the Colts met the New Orleans Saints in the 6th Annual NFL Kickoff Classic, an event that brings together of the elements of the Super Bowl’s pageantry (the pre-game nationally televised concert) along with the defending Super Bowl champion hosting a marquee opponent in this case Reggie Bush and the New Orleans Saints a team many believe will represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLII on February 3, 2008 in Phoenix.

For NFL commissioner Roger Goodell last night’s game was a all too brief opportunity to actually enjoy a football game in what NBC football and Football Hall of Fame member John Madden called “A summer filled with crap”. The challenges Goodell faced in his first year at the helm of the $6 billion industry known as the National Football League might have destroyed a lesser man, clearly Roger Goodell was up for the greatest challenge of his professional career, an entire livelihood (24 years) as a football executive. Goodell never played a down of professional football, but from the day he worked as a public relations intern at the NFL’s New York Park Avenue offices in 1984 Roger Goodell was more than ready to take center stage managing the economic engine that sets the table for the entire sports industry.

Before Thursday night’s kickoff Goodell acknowledged one issue the league has to deal with complaints the NFL’s most important stakeholders (football fans) have about the NFL’s pre-season. NFL regular season tickets are next to impossible to find. The only opening weekend game not sold out as SBN went to press early Friday morning was Sunday afternoon’s game in Minneapolis, where the home town Minnesota Vikings will be meeting the Atlanta Falcons. Minneapolis Metrodome is directly adjacent to Interstate 35W site of last month’s horrific bridge collapse. The NFL granted the Vikings a 24-hour extension to meet the league mandated sellout before a blackout can be lifted and the game televised into a teams’ home market.

NFL season ticket holders are forced to pay regular season ticket prices for each teams’ two pre-season home games. Most franchises play their starters for as few as one or two sets of downs early in the pre-season to no more than half a game late in the pre-season. Fans are fed up paying top dollar for games that don’t matter and rarely if ever feature those who will be playing on Sunday’s once the regular season begins. Those sentiments aside at the end of the day as Goodell made clear – those two pre-season home games are all about the business of football, the dollars and sense of football.

“I think it needs to be reevaluated. There are a number of factors that go into the pre-season. You've got competitive issues, teams trying to evaluate players, particularly players 35 to 53 on their rosters. You also have fan issues that are critically important to us. You have financial issues and you have labor issues.
“We're going to look at all of it and try to determine what is the right mix of pre-season games versus regular-season games and try to make a decision that's in the best interests of our clubs and our fans.”

The New York Giants and Miami Dolphins will travel to London to play at Wembley Stadium on October 28, an event Goodell is clearly looking forward to and could lead to something even bigger down the road in London.

“We believe it's the greatest game in the world, and it is America's passion. But that also adds a great deal of intrigue from an international standpoint. People want to see NFL football on a global basis and we are trying to deliver more football to that global fan base.
“Every time we brought a game, either an NFL game or an NFL Europe game, pre-season games, we have been able to generate tremendous excitement in those markets. We're trying to bring more of that to these markets. And the reaction we're getting in the UK right now with the Dolphins and the Giants is extraordinary.

“I think it's possible (that one day a Super Bowl could be played in London). We have had such a tremendous reaction in the UK over this regular-season game. We know there's a great fan base there. We've been playing there for over 20 years. It's been on television on a regular basis. And there's a tremendous fan base. And it's a great international city. So it is possible.”

After announcing the NFL’s Player Conduct Code in late April, following that up with the suspensions of Pacman Jones, Chris Henry and Tank Johnson and before Goodell and NFL officials became aware of Michael Vick’s horrific six-year illegal dogfighting activities, Goodell met with most of the current crop of NFL rookies who will be making their debut this weekend, delivering a not so subtle message to those looking to play on Sunday, it’s a privilege not a given right to play on Sunday’s in the National Football League. What concerns did those young men express to at the NFL’s rookie symposium to Goodell?

“Two things. One is the importance of player safety. And second, they want to do everything we possibly can to strengthen the NFL, the image in the NFL, the reputation, and make sure that we're doing what's right for the game of football long-term.
“And that's what makes me so proud about being associated with the NFL and our players. They love the game of football. They recognize the important position they have in our society. And they want to do a good job of representing the NFL. And I'm proud of them for that.”

One of Goodell’s mantra’s from his first year was to institute a series of rules that include a telephone hotline that will make it easier to report to the league when a player with a head injury is being forced to practice or play against medical advice.

“I think we're leading the way as it relates to concussion research and medical evaluations of the impact of concussions, what can be done to eliminate or reduce the impact of concussions on individuals, what we can do to make changes in our game to make sure the game is safer for our players to play.
“And I think that's what's very exciting about the changes that we've been able to make in our concussion study and with our medical teams.
“As it relates to the risk involved in playing football, yes, it's a tough game. Our players know that. But they love that game of football. And I think every one of them would go back in and do that. We just want to make sure they're doing it under the safest possible conditions.”

“Well, the basis of the whistleblower concept was to make sure that at all times medical issues override competitive issues. And I believe that is happening across the league. If a player or a coach or an observer sees any player being unduly pressured, they are to report that on a very confidential basis, and we will look into it.
“I don't believe it's going to be necessary because I believe that our doctors and our coaches fully understand that medical issues are the most important aspect for them to be focused on.”

As successful as Goodell was in so many critical areas one issue that isn’t going anywhere, the plight of retired NFL players and the serious hardships they are facing as a result of the injuries they suffered during their football careers and how that has impacted the quality of their lives after they’ve left the football field. Congress held hearings on the terrible toll playing football has taken on its greatest stars making it clear to the Lord of the Pigskin they had better find solutions to the problems.

“I believe that we as a league, we as a union, need to do more for our retired players. I firmly believe that. I know Gene believes in that. We have to be intelligent about how we approach this issue.
“What we're trying to do is figure out exactly what it is we can be doing to be responsive to our former players. There are medical issues. There are disability issues. There are pension issues. We have been focused primarily on the medical issues over the last several months.
“Our union has gone back four times in the Collective Bargaining Agreement over the last 13 years and improved pensions, and quite significantly.
“Obviously there's more that can get done. If they were making improvements to that, they obviously recognize there are things that should be done from a pension standpoint.

“But I think our union deserves some credit for going back and looking at the former players. Gene and I have agreed we should be looking at this going forward”

One issue that has caught Goodell’s attention is the disparity between what rookies earn (early round draft selections) and NFL veterans. The NFL’s salary cap at times seemingly works to depress the salaries of veterans to accommodate the guaranteed money (bonuses) unproven rookies who have never played a down in the NFL are demanding and all too often getting over those who have established themselves as NFL players.

“I do think it's important, Chris. I think it's important for our veteran players who would ultimately benefit. This isn't about saving money; this is about shifting the dollars that we spend on players to the veterans that have earned it.
“On the other hand, I think it's great to see rookies getting well-rewarded for what they've accomplished. But I think everyone feels that there needs to be some shift, making sure that the money is going to the players that have achieved the greatest success in the NFL.”

Goodell’s NFL Player Conduct Code became the talk of the off-season (given that Michael Vick suspension was a result of the Conduct Code) it’s interesting to note Goodell believes overall NFL players are supportive of his efforts to reign in deviant behavior.

“I've had incredible encouragement from the players as I've gone around to mini camps, training camps and talking to players individually. I get calls frequently here at the office from players talking about what's working, what's not working.
“Almost uniformly the players have been very supportive of the policy because they're the ones whose reputation is at risk. When they look at NFL players and they say are all NFL players like this, we want to make sure they recognize the answer to that is no. Our players are great people who have a lot to be proud of and are doing great things on and off the field. And the fact that they recognize the importance of their reputations as a group is important. And I know they want to do whatever they can to promote the image of the league and the individual players.”

The NFL Player Conduct Code happened with the full support of the NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw. A year ago in one of his last actions of NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue came to defense of Upshaw, something Goodell is prepared to do as well.

“The fact that he got the labor agreement that he has, I think most importantly. If he's cozy, there was a difficult negotiation we went through and he did extremely well on behalf of the NFL players. They're getting 60% of our gross revenues, not our profits, our gross revenues, which is extraordinary. So I think as a union leader, I can't think of somebody who's done more for NFL players than Gene Upshaw.
“I think he's recognized through his years of leadership since he's been on the picket lines, he's led strikes, that we are all better off if we can come to some resolution where the players and the owners and, most importantly, the fans can benefit from a relationship that's mutually beneficial.
“He represents two thousand players. He doesn't represent just one player. And what happens here is when one player's activity paint all of our players, that's bad for his entire union leadership.
“That's what Gene Upshaw is. He's a union leader. He's not representing just a single player; he's representing all two thousand players. And this is what his players want because it's in their best interest long-term to keep the NFL strong.”

It never ceases to amaze this writer how people look at Gene Upshaw. Is a sports union leader deemed a success if the union (the Major League Baseball Players Association comes to mind) controls the league or advises players to sit out an entire year (the National Hockey League Players Association). Why isn’t Upshaw afforded more respect? And let’s make one point crystal clear – Roger Goodell had a remarkable first year in a job he had worked a lifetime towards and deserves a great deal of credit for an amazing year where Roger Goodell acted like a real leader has to, in the best interests of everyone associated with the National Football League.

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom

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