Soon after Roger Goodell had taken over as NFL commissioner in 2006, he showed up in a press box at a Seahawks game to take a few questions.
He had that shiny New Commissioner look, lots of grins and optimism.
Here was my question: What is your No. 1 concern as you take over this enormously popular enterprise?
“The fall?” he said.
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When asked to elaborate, he said he didn’t want to be the guy who messed up the good thing the NFL had going.
It seemed surprisingly frank and perhaps a little paranoid because, really, this league seemed almost untouchable in its swelling popularity.
Now, it seems closer than ever to a reality.
On Friday, Goodell gave his annual Super Bowl week press conference, and the best thing that could be said about how he was greeted was that nobody threw any footwear at him.
The league still prints money, and its popularity continues to amaze.
But Goodell himself is under fire after a year of issues concerning players’ domestic abuse, possible cheating and slow or botched investigations.
Players around the league, including Seahawks like Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett, are openly questioning the league in general, and Goodell specifically.
On Friday, Goodell wasn’t squirting sweat at Nixon levels, but he certainly was a long way from the slick, glib commish we’re used to seeing. He opened with about a 10-minute preemptive defense of his efforts on a number of fronts, at times sounding contrite for shortcomings in this year of “challenges, learning and real progress.”
The NFL, after all, “is made up of good and caring people,” he said.
They’re renewing focus on player health and safety, codes for personal conduct and restoring confidence in the league, he said. He cited the new NFL conduct committee he expects to “raise the standards for all of us.”
“We have enormous responsibility to lead by example,” he said. “We know we must earn the trust of our fans every day.”
And then he opened it up for questions — without visibly ducking.
He was asked if he thought he should take a pay cut. That, he said, is a matter for the owners to decide. He reportedly makes $44 million a year.
He was asked if he considered resigning. “No.”
He was asked about the personal costs of all the controversies.
“It’s been a tough year on me personally,” he said. “We obviously, as an organization, have gone through adversity. We take that seriously. … We’ve all done a lot of soul-searching, starting with yours truly, and we have taken action.”
Goodell got a little salty when asked about his relationship with New England owner Robert Kraft, with whom he was pictured chummily at Kraft’s home. He said it was a gathering before the AFC title game and he was there meeting with season ticket-holders, sponsors and media partners, he explained, something that he considers part of his job.
When a reporter relayed Sherman’s concern that players have to address the media every week, but Goodell doesn’t, Goodell said that he makes himself “available to the media almost every day.”
He was unequivocal in his negative opinion of Marshawn Lynch’s silent treatment toward the media.
“I think Marshawn understands the importance of the Super Bowl, the importance of his appearance, and the importance of him as an individual in this game,” he said. “I understand it may not be the top of his list, but everyone else is cooperating and everyone else is doing their part because it is our obligation … it comes with the privilege of playing in the Super Bowl.”
It’s hard to say that a guy who made $44 million had a bad year, but Goodell looked like a man under considerable pressure.
Players have been outspokenly critical of his guidance. And if there were a public approval rating for an NFL commissioner, he might be registering an historic nadir.
The league, though, is so strong and such a part of national culture that it might be at that too-big-to-fail level. But the commissioner isn’t.
“It’s been a year of what I would say is humility and learning,” he said.
Maybe he hasn’t reached “the fall” that he feared eight years ago. But the footing is more slippery than it’s ever been.