He is booed mercilessly every time he walks onto the stage to announce a first-round pick at the NFL Draft.
He was heavily criticized for his mishandling of discipline for former Ravens running back Ray Rice over a domestic violence incident in 2014.
He is detested by almost every Patriots fan because of the intransigence he showed in meting out a four-game suspension to Tom Brady for purportedly being aware of a scheme to use underinflated footballs in the AFC Championship Game more than 18 months ago.
And Saints fans still haven’t forgotten his heavy-handed punishment, which included a year’s suspension of coach Sean Payton in 2012, in connection with the Saints’ alleged use of bounties to entice their players to injure opponents.
The relentlessly negative publicity may have been more strident than the public scrutiny of his two predecessors — over a combined 46 years.
Yet as Roger Goodell approaches the 10th anniversary of his hiring as the NFL’s commissioner, his standing among almost all team owners couldn’t be more secure. So anyone who thinks the swarm of criticism in recent years will eventually result in his ouster is way off the mark. Goodell may be vilified by many fans, especially those whose teams have been directly impacted by his rulings, but he is adored and extolled by the billionaire owners who hired him and have paid him more than $200 million in salary.
With one notable — albeit predictable — exception.
“I think he’s done a very good job for the league,” Giants president and co-owner John Mara told Newsday. “I’m certainly aware of the criticism he has received, but a lot of it is unjustified. One thing I’m very confident in is his motivation. With all of these decisions he makes, he’s trying to do the right thing. You can agree or disagree with the end result, but he has the league’s best interests in mind.”
Goodell, now 57, was chosen to succeed Paul Tagliabue on Aug. 8, 2006, after working his way up from an intern in 1982 under then-commissioner Pete Rozelle to the most powerful administrative position in professional sports in North America. He was viewed as an ideal candidate, given his decadeslong apprenticeship in the league office, although it took five ballots before owners selected him over NFL attorney Gregg Levy.
Goodell was viewed as a stricter disciplinarian than Tagliabue, and he quickly became known as “The Sheriff” after handing down stiff suspensions to a handful of players, including cornerback Pacman Jones and quarterbacks Michael Vick, who ran an illegal dogfighting operation, and Ben Roethlisberger, who was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old college student in 2010. Roethlisberger was not charged with a crime, but Goodell suspended him under the league’s personal conduct policy.
But the high-profile cases involving the Saints in what came to be known as Bountygate, and especially his mishandling of the Rice situation, in which Goodell was ripped for handing down just a two-game suspension despite the fact that Rice knocked out his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, now Rice’s wife, in the elevator of an Atlantic City hotel, brought huge criticism on the commissioner.
Goodell’s dealings with Brady in the Deflategate controversy have further inflamed emotions of many fans, and the case has reached the highest levels of the court system. Brady appealed the case to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals before finally deciding earlier this month to accept his suspension. The NFL Players Association is now deciding whether to appeal to the Supreme Court to limit Goodell’s disciplinary powers, which were approved as part of the 2011 collective-bargaining agreement.
Not surprisingly, Patriots owner Robert Kraft may be the only owner in the league with a major problem endorsing Goodell. He declined to be interviewed through a Patriots official, but publicly chided Goodell in a statement released at the time Brady announced he would serve his four-game suspension. Kraft said Brady was “denied his right to a fair and impartial process” and that Goodell’s punishment was “unprecedented, unjust and unreasonable, especially given that no empirical or direct evidence of any kind showed Tom did anything to violate league rules prior to, during or after the 2015 AFC Championship Game. What Tom has had to endure throughout this 18-month ordeal has been, in my opinion, as far removed from due process as you could ever expect in this country.”
But Kraft is in the minority when it comes to criticizing Goodell, and some owners privately believe Kraft is trying to walk a fine line with Patriots fans by showing support for Brady while still agreeing with Goodell’s other handling of league matters, particularly in terms of how lucrative the league has become on his watch.
According to a study last September by Forbes, the NFL’s 32 teams were worth a combined $62.9 billion. NFL revenues are expected to surpass $13 billion this year, an increase of more than 50 percent from 2010, the year before Goodell negotiated a 10-year labor deal.
The NFL recently agreed to a $1-billion settlement of a concussion lawsuit, which limits the league’s liability on a major issue, and Goodell has tasked the league with improving health and safety issues for current and former players. And the eventual outcome of the Rice incident has been a robust new policy that more forcefully addresses domestic violence.
His decisions have ruffled the feathers of several teams, and even some owners, but his constituents are highly impressed with his performance.
One owner whose team was punished by Goodell lauded the commissioner for his accomplishments, even though his own team was docked a third-round pick in 2016 and a sixth-rounder in 2017 for tampering with then-free agent wide receiver Jeremy Maclin.
“At some point, in most teams’ involvement in the league, there’s going to be a ruling you don’t like, and one of Roger’s most important jobs is defending the integrity of the game,” Chiefs owner Clark Hunt told Newsday. “We recently had a situation [involving Maclin] where we disagreed with a call that he had to make. But over time, I think that’s just part and parcel of the job. While I’m still not happy about how that turned out, I can look past it and truthfully believe that Roger felt he was doing what was in the best interest of the league and all 32 teams.”
Goodell has become a magnet for criticism among many fans, particularly on social media, where he is regularly lambasted for his rulings, but the owners aren’t concerned by the negative publicity. In fact, some are grateful that it is Goodell — and not the owners themselves — who bears the brunt of the criticism.
“That’s not an unfair statement,” Mara said. “You look at the lockout in 2011. That was largely driven by the owners and he took a lot of the criticism for us. Most of us were not happy with the previous CBA, and we wanted to reach an agreement. I think he took a lot of the criticism for that, but that resulted in a 10-year labor agreement without losing any [regular-season] games. It was a pretty extraordinary accomplishment, and the deal has worked pretty well for both sides.”
Hunt acknowledged “it would be better if there were not those kinds of controversies in the media, but to some degree, we’ve entered an era where the complexity of the game and media focus, which includes a lot of new media outlets that didn’t exist 15-20 years ago, have created an environment where it’s probably impossible to avoid those controversies.”
Hunt and other owners believe that though Goodell has made some missteps — most point to the Rice case as his biggest failure — he has learned from the experience and improved his performance as a result.
“Roger has been our point man on a lot of tough issues, and it’s not an easy job,” Steelers president Art Rooney II told Newsday. “I think the position itself is something of a lightning-rod position. He’s taken some arrows here and there and that goes with the job these days. He’s confronted the challenges, built consensus where he had to. Obviously, he has had some challenges we’ve had to confront, and Roger himself has said he’s made a mistake or two. But all things considered, he’s done a good job. I think probably two of the most important pieces of business that we’ve got to get right are television contracts and our collective-bargaining agreement. I don’t think you can argue with the results on those two fronts.”
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones offered a ringing endorsement for Goodell’s tenure.
“The fact that our league has become as substantive as it is relative to interest has created an expectation, which we all are proud of and we accept,” Jones said. “But for a commissioner, relative to some of the issues, social issues, discipline, all of those kinds of things have been highlighted, and I think if you look at that entire area, it’s an area he’s undergoing a lot of scrutiny and criticism. But when the dust settles, he will have made his mark. [Goodell] has certainly made the highest grades, as far as I’m concerned, that I could give him.”
Jets owner Woody Johnson, who was on the search committee for a new commissioner when Tagliabue retired, said of Goodell’s tenure: “I think things have worked out great. You can see the way the league has progressed. I think by almost any measurable standard, he’s done an excellent job. We thought he was good when he got the job [in 2006], and he has been good.”
How does Goodell himself rate the job he’s done? He’s not saying. Goodell declined to be interviewed for this and other retrospectives of his stewardship.
His constituents are pleased with his first decade on the job, and welcome another 10 years on the job.
“Has he made mistakes? Sure he has,” Mara said. “But in this profession, they’re going to make mistakes, and they’re going to be highly visible and everyone can have an opinion on it. But when I look at where we were when he took over and where we are now, the money we’re spending on research, increases in retiree benefits, rules changes to make the game safer, the tremendous business contracts we have entered into, all these have been done not only on his watch, but usually with him steering the ship.”