Roger Goodell does not thrill NFL crowds by catching passes or eluding tackles. He doesn’t sing, dance, act or entertain audiences with his humor. He’s never applied for a patent, or written a best-selling book, or painted a portrait, or designed a bridge.
I mention this not to begrudge the absence of a singular talent on his résumé, merely recalling my reaction to the news the NFL commissioner was paid $29.49 million in 2011. His base salary of $3.1 million was augmented by $22.3 million in bonuses.
Anyway, my reaction went something like this:
Outrageous salaries might be the most polarizing issue in American sports. Even when the Seattle Mariners signed Felix Hernandez — a gifted pitcher and all-around good dude — to a contract extension worth $175 million last week, some fans scowled at the notion of guaranteeing a fortune to a 26-year-old who throws baseballs five days a month between April and October.
But athletes such as Hernandez are capable of thrilling a crowd. Who was the last commissioner of a sports league to have dazzled a crowd? (Probably Jim Thorpe, who in 1920 served as the American Professional Football Association’s first president. It was a titular role for Thorpe, who still was playing for the Canton Bulldogs. He was replaced in 1921.)
It would be one thing if Goodell’s $29.49 million salary reflected his sterling work. But move ahead a year, and we see that 2012 was a tough year for him. Let’s see, there was that fiasco with the replacement refs, pushed into service because the NFL locked out the incumbent officials. The cost of reinstating the incumbent officials came to about $60,000 per team — pocket change for a league that rewarded its commissioners with $22.3 million in bonuses the year before.
At least Goodell oversaw a settlement with the officials. Less successful was any substantial progress on ways to make a violent collision sport safer for its most accomplished participants. Goodell’s only “achievement” on that score has been to issue fines unprecedented in their severity.
But no innovative, long-term ideas were announced by the commissioner’s office. Nothing was put on the table for debate. Former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward suggested equipping players in the leather helmets worn in Thorpe’s day — a crazy thought, to be sure, but a thought nevertheless.
Meanwhile, 4,000 lawsuits have been filed against the NFL by the families of ex-players who were not informed of the quality-of-life decline sustained by head injuries. (The lawsuits are awaiting a federal judge’s review in Philadelphia.)
Head trauma was a problem long before Goodell took office, but under his watch players have gotten bigger, faster and stronger. Which brings us to another unresolved issue: testing for human-growth hormone. The commissioner hopes to implement HGH testing before next season.
The key word is “hopes.”
“It’s the right thing to do for the integrity of the game,” Goodell said at his annual, state-of-the-league press conference before the Super Bowl. “The science is there. There is no question about that.”
Thanks for the update, Rog. The science is so there that even Major League Baseball has come to rely on it. Remember when the NFL’s policy regarding performance-enhancing drugs appeared light-years ahead of MLB? No more.
For that matter, remember when the NFL adopted the “Rooney Rule,” a decade ago, to ensure minority candidates a legitimate shot at working as coaches or general managers? Of the past 15 openings for these NFL jobs, precisely zero were awarded to minority candidates.
Goodell has no influence in the firing and hiring of front-office personnel, but he’s the chief executive of a league that instituted a rule. Going 0-for-15 strikes me as a sign the rule isn’t working. If the rule isn’t working, a commissioner’s iron fist might be required.
“We have to look to see what the next generation of the Rooney Rule is,” Goodell said before the Super Bowl. “What’s going to take us to another level? We’re committed to finding that answer.”
A commitment to find an answer. Cool! What more could be expected of somebody paid $29.49 million to exercise iron fists?
Speaking of iron fists, Goodell used both of them when suspending four players associated with the New Orleans Saints bounty program. When the players appealed, former commissioner Paul Tagliabue was appointed to consider their cases.
Tagliabue rescinded the suspensions, essentially determining that Goodell rendered judgment without tangible evidence.
Hey, nobody’s perfect. Just because Roger Goodell botched the bounty-program suspensions, and offered no vibrant voice on solutions to eliminate head trauma, or begin HGH testing, or fix the Rooney Rule, is no reason to vilify him.
But it is a reason to consider the $29.49 million he was paid in 2011, and who-knows-what in 2012, and to wonder: