In the eleven years since Roger Goodell replaced Paul Tagliabue as NFL Commissioner he’s become something of a fixture in the national conversation when it comes to sports. The Commish is viewed as being nearly untouchable and his word is essentially law inside the league. Even when the concussion debate was flaring up and people were suggesting that perhaps Goodell would have to be sacrificed, it never looked like he was in any trouble.
Now, however, a series of controversies are roiling the league and Goodell may actually be on the way out just as he’s in line for a five year extension on his contract. You can tell this is getting serious because some of the team owners are talking openly about it. (ESPN)
The Cowboys’ Jerry Jones was a leading voice among 17 NFL owners on a conference call Thursday that discussed the possibility of halting commissioner Roger Goodell’s pending contract extension, sources involved with the call told ESPN.
There is a growing difference of opinion among owners about Goodell’s overall performance as commissioner, according to sources. The owners on Thursday’s conference call are generally unhappy with Goodell and the NFL’s front office for a variety of reasons, including the player protests staged during the national anthem, issues regarding the relocation of teams to Los Angeles and the league’s handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence case, according to sources.
“You don’t get to have this many messes over the years like Roger has had and survive it,” one owner said during the call.
This situation feels different than the previous controversies which have enveloped Goodell. As long as it was external critics in sports media he could afford to mostly ignore them. But this year the bottom line is really the financial bottom line of the league. Goodell’s only real responsibilities as Commissioner are to keep the league functioning smoothly and ensure that the money keeps rolling in. In the midst of all this national anthem controversy, neither of those jobs is getting done at anywhere near peak efficiency. Too many stadiums are half empty on game day and the television ratings are down significantly. That means less revenue for the league and trouble for Goodell.
But that doesn’t mean that removing him would be easy or even possible if he doesn’t want to go. (And you don’t just stroll away from a $34M per year salary casually.) The only people who can fire Goodell are the owners and the system is set up in a way which makes that a challenging task. It would take a supermajority to fire Goodell in the form of at least 24 of the 32 team owners. It remains unclear if Jerry Jones has that many people on his side who are ready to give Roger the boot.
The other option would be for Goodell to gracefully step down and avoid the embarrassment of getting a pink slip. If just a simple majority of the owners sent him a letter asking him to vacate the premises he would have the option of issuing a statement about how he was doing it for the good of the game and to avoid needless controversy for the NFL or anything else. I wouldn’t be shocked to find that the Commish has a golden parachute clause in his contract which would set him up nicely for retirement. (And the guy has already made more than $200M as Commissioner.)
If Goodell actually does leave office it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that he brought all of this on himself. The time to deal with the National Anthem controversy was the very first time Colin Kaepernick acted out, not two years later when an isolated incident had grown into a monster. All Goodell would have had to do was issue a rules clarification saying that all players would stand respectfully for the Anthem. At the same time, he could have expressed the league’s support for any reasonable causes the players cared about, provided space outside of the stadiums for press conferences and perhaps helped organize some sort of charitable foundation the players and owners could donate to aimed at promoting better relationships between communities and the police who serve them. But as it is, the horse is already out of the barn and it may run down Goodell as it escapes.