In the wake of multiple lockouts, the Bountygate scandal, and the increasing scrutiny on the long-term affects of concussions, the NFL commissioner has undoubtedly become a divisive figure. If you ask most players or fans what they think of Roger Goodell, you will likely hear a steady stream of negativity and insults. "He's a power-hungry tyrant." "He doesn't actually care about player safety." "He is an untrustworthy puppet for the NFL owners and I don't much care for his haircut."
Personally, I disagree with Goodell's detractors, which puts me in the apparent minority that believes the commissioner is doing an adequate job. Is there room for improvement? No doubt. But I think the criticism leveled against Goodell reflects a disconcertingly short-term view on the sport as a whole. Roger Goodell stands at the helm of the most profitable sports league on the planet and has a profound sense of duty to "protect the shield" of the NFL. That means doing unpopular things in the present to ensure the continuation of the sport in the future.
But that isn't really the point of this article. Much like American politics, it seems there is really no sure-fire answer on either side of the debate. Talking about the commissioner does, however, raise some interesting points about his position as the custodian of football's future. According to a recent article from ESPN The Magazine, Roger Goodell is reportedly "terrified" that a player could die during an NFL game.
It's happened only once. Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes died of a heart attack late in a game on Oct. 24, 1971. Within the past year, Goodell has told friends privately that he believes if the game's hard-knocks culture doesn't change, it could happen again. "He's terrified of it," says a Hall of Fame player who speaks regularly with Goodell. "It wouldn't just be a tragedy. It would be awfully bad for business."
In light of this revelation, it's easy to see the motivation behind Goodell's actions as commissioner. He is essentially a servant to two masters, one being his responsibility to the continuation of football as a sport and the other being his responsibility to run the NFL as an extremely profitable business. In general, these ideas can coexist. Every once in a while, however, they are at odds with one another, as is the case in the recent crusade to eliminate concussions from the sport. On the one hand, the concussion issue must be resolved before public pressure builds to a tipping point like it did in 1905, when the deaths of 19 players led to a movement to ban the game. On the other hand, any changes that are made to the game could negatively impact the profitability of the league and result in disgruntled players and fans.
Basically, Goodell is between a rock and a hard place.
The possibility of the catastrophic event of a player death constantly hangs over his head, but the momentum required to create any of the needed changes seems against him. So in the meantime, he picks his battles and sets his sights on problems that are "easier" to solve that will yield more visibility, so he can point to something tangible when people ask him what he is doing to protect the game.
The sport of football weathered a similar storm back in 1905, but only because people like Theodore Roosevelt put their foot down on the issue and demanded actual changes. Roosevelt brought together the three main football schools of the era and spurred them into action to avoid a ban on the sport. In just a few short months following his meeting, a new regulatory body (which would ultimately become the NCAA) was convened and new rules were put into place to shift football away from the mass plays that made it so dangerous. Now, over 100 years later, football has become a cultural juggernaut seen by many to be "too big to fail." If so, then it is all the more important that Goodell act now, before such a tragedy strips him of his ability to steer the sport's future.
Ultimately, despite all his other actions, I believe that Goodell will be judged solely on this one issue. He will either be remembered as the commissioner who guided the game of football into a more sustainable future or the commissioner whose paralyzing inaction forced him to face his greatest fear: the death of a player during an NFL game.
In a question-and-answer session at the University of North Carolina, Commissioner Goodell denied the report that he was afraid of a player dying during a game. Instead, Goodell stated that he "[worries] about any injury on the field."
“We are trying to make the game safer for the players who play. The fans care about that. The teams care about that. We are going to do everything we can to make the game safer. Any injury that we see, we want to reduce, particularly catastrophic injuries. We have been able to do that by carefully managing the rules and carefully doing what we can to improve the equipment, and we are not going to relent on that. We will continue to stay after that.”