There has been over 70 Monday Night Football games since Roger Goodell was voted in as the NFL commissioner after Paul Tagliabue retired in August of 2006. Seventy games played between Super Bowl winning teams like the Patriots and Steelers. Seventy games in major markets like Dallas and New York. Seventy games, most of which were played in cities that aren't Cincinnati and by teams who aren't the Bengals. That's why it may seem ironic that when Roger Goodell decided to tailgate with fans and answer their questions before a Monday Night Football game for the first time ever, he decided to do it in Cincinnati with Bengals fans.
It was 4:15 when I first arrived at Lot E, directly behind the stadium where some long-time season ticket holders tailgate. Event staff were finishing up with the lighting while sound testing the microphones. It looked more like roadies setting up for an exclusive concert; not an NFL commissioner gearing up for a fan open forum. There were chefs positioned in the back of the fenced off area, busily cooking a spread of different finger foods for the 100 fans and selected media members who would soon be arriving.
4:45. Only 30 minutes later, people with passes were pouring through the entrance and four altered Bengals buses were situated to form the side boundaries of the event. The buses, some orange and black and one painted green like a football field, were owned by some of the longest tenured season ticket holders. One of those buses belonged to 40-year season ticket owner Bill Castellini, who was excited for his first chance to speak to an NFL commissioner. Castellini said he wanted to ask Goodell if there were any plans to add another team to the NFL family, possibly in Los Angeles. Another fan wanted to ask Goodell about the new helmet-to-helmet policy and how referees were going to make the right judgment calls. And another fan was hoping to find out if the commissioner had any plans to lower ticket prices.
5:15. Easily recognizable Bengals figures were beginning to make an appearance. Mike Brown's wife, Nancy, and their daughter Katie Blackburn mingled with the waiting crowd who had now migrated from the tables of food in the rear of the tailgate to the front in anticipation of Goodell's arrival and finally, just around 5:20, he did. Immediately fans surrounded him, asking him to sign anything from footballs to t-shirts to the passes worn around the necks of the invited guests. Goodell stood in the center of the large mob of 100 people, smiled, shook hands, signed autographs and posed for pictures. The sun was starting to set and the spotlights came on. Flashbulbs from cameras and cellphones lit up Goodell's face from every direction.
5:30. After a tour of the four Bengal tailgate buses and mingling with their owners, an assistant picked up a microphone and announced that Goodell would be taking questions and comments. Fans crowded around, forming a semi-circle where Goodell stood in the center. Hands were raising up in the air signaling questions and two assistants were walking around and handing microphones to those who had questions. The first question came from a man to Goodell's right side who said, "These guys are making millions and millions of dollars a year. Don't you think that it's not that big of a deal if they take a helmet to helmet hit?"
Goodell responded to the first of many questions saying, "I couldn't disagree with you more. I think what we need to do is make our game as safe as we can for everybody who plays the game. It doesn't matter whether you're playing in Paul Brown Stadium or you're playing in youth football, or any other sport, by the way. Concussions are actually more prevalent in girl's soccer, as a matter of fact. But, what we need to do is make any sport as safe as it can be and we're learning an awful lot about head injuries. We have a lot more to learn but anything we can do to decrease the risk of injury, whether it be a head injury or anything else. So, we're going to invest in the best equipment, we're going to invest in the best research, we're going to make sure our rules promote safety as much as possible and we're not going to compromise on it."
Satisfied with the commissioners answer, the man who asked it, who happened to be standing just to my right, nodded his head and said, "fair enough".
Questions from fans were coming from all directions. One woman asked what the commissioner was going to do about player behavior. One man asked about lowering ticket prices so he could take his family of six to a game for under $1,000. Another man asked about concession prices. A woman asked about regulating vulgar fan behavior in the stands and at tailgates. Questions were asked about an 18-game season. A fan even asked Goodell what he planned to do to get Pete Rose in the baseball hall of fame and if Cincinnati would get to host a Super Bowl (in a very nice way, Goodell basically said no).
When a Steelers fan leaned over the event barrier and asked if he could ask a question, Goodell said yes and the crowd booed. The question was about Troy Polamalu's suggestion that a secondary agency should be responsible for reviewing violent hits and recommending fines for players.
"That's a good question and nobody respects the players viewpoint more than I do," said Goodell. "Right now, the way it works, is our staff makes those decisions about fines. In fact, I was gone all day today and they made decisions today. One of them is a former player, Merton Hanks - he played for the San Francisco 49ers. After that decision is made, they reach out and hear the perspective of many different people - coaches, players and clubs - when they're making that decision. And if the player wants to appeal it, they appeal it to a former player. This is set up with their union, we just did it this past off season. So they do get the proper kind of attention and focus and, what I would call independent review from the people who make the decisions."
When a fan asked if the new collective bargaining agreement would help get unproven rookie salaries under control and reward veteran players who have proven their worth on the field, Goodell responded by saying, "You're talking about something that I've been focusing on for several years now. I do believe that our rookie compensation system is out of wack. I'm all for players making a lot of money, they perform a great role. They are true, wonderful athletes that provide great entertainment. But, I do believe you should prove yourself on an NFL field and that's where the front focus should be. Money should go to the proven veterans, when they've proven it on that field, inside that stadium. I think that something that we've been very focused on during our negotiations and I believe we're going to get there and be successful on that. I hear that from fans from all over the country, that we need a new rookie compensation system and I know that our 32 clubs believe that and I think our players believe that."
There were virtually no questions involving just the Bengals and most of the questions came from fans who were worried about the changes in the NFL over the past few seasons. Fans also showed concern about the pending lockout, which Goodell said that he feels like it would be a mistake for the players and owners to not come to an agreement and that the two sides need to have productive meetings instead of just meetings.
There was no booing. There were no questions accusing Goodell of not doing his job. The 100 fans asked good, clear and well thought out questions and were satisfied with Goodell's answers. When Goodell introduced Bengals Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz, he said that Munoz was his lineman and was going to protect him from any bad questions. The fans cheered. It turned out that Munoz didn't need to protect Goodell from anything.
To begin most of their questions, most fans even said things like "welcome to Cincinnati" or "we think you're doing a great job". Goodell was shown much more hospitality and was greeted with more smiles than MLB commission Bud Selig could ever hope to get from Reds fans.
This was just another example of why the NFL has skyrocketed to be the most popular professional sports league in the country and why regular season NFL games get higher TV ratings than playoff baseball games in October. It shows that a commissioner of a league worth billions, who could sit in an ivory tower and ignore those he depends on if he wanted to, still cares about what normal, every day fans think about the job he's doing. It proves that there is still a strong personal connection between the NFL and the fans that have made it so popular.
It wasn't an exclusive event for box-seat owners or for personal friends of players and league officials. There were 100 me's and 100 you's at the event who love the Bengals and the game of football. In the face of a pending lockout, Goodell's appearance in Cincinnati and his question and answer session was just what fans needed. It let them know that the NFL does care and that it's trying to do what it can to make sure that the product we pay for and that we love will be there next year and the year after that, and then long after that. It was a way for the NFL to say thank you to the fans that hold it up higher than any other league in America.