I have to admit, Roger Goodell fooled me. I’ve had one long sit-down interview with him – back in 2009, when I was asked to do a cover story on him for Parade Magazine.
I sent an e-mail to Greg Aiello, who was then the NFL’s PR director and the go-to guy if you wanted to speak to Goodell. Aiello is a smart, amiable fellow and he quickly wrote back to say that Goodell would be happy to give me time as long as the story mentioned that October would be the first “Breast Cancer Awareness Month” in the NFL.
If I had been writing the story for The Washington Post, I’d almost certainly have had to say something like, “If my editors and I think that’s a legitimate part of the story, I’ll mention it, but I can’t guarantee it.”
Even though Parade is an insert in The Sunday Washington Post, it is independent from the paper. I asked my editor, Janice Kaplan, how she felt about the condition laid out by Aiello and she said it was fine. I wasn’t uncomfortable with the deal because Aiello had told me the reason the intiative was important to Goodell was that his mother had died of breast cancer.
That made it a legitimate part of the story, condition or no condition.
The first thing I noticed walking into Goodell’s office was a framed copy of SB-3000, introduced by his father, Charles Goodell, in the United States Senate in 1969. It was a bill that called for de-funding the Vietnam War. Goodell had been appointed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1968 to replace the murdered Robert F. Kennedy in the senate. Goodell was a Republican, but those were different days in which Republicans often took liberal positions on issues and Democrats leaned right at times. The framed copy of the bill hung just inside the door of Charles Goodell’s son’s office.
Senator Goodell believed the war had to end and didn’t trust President Richard M. Nixon to end it. After he introduced the bill, he became an avowed enemy of Nixon’s and lost his seat in 1970 to James Buckley, who ran on the conservative party ticket, attacked Buckley and Democratic candidate Richard Ottinger as liberals and won when they split the moderate-liberal vote.
Goodell was clearly proud of his father. I had grown up in New York and was old enough to remember that election. Goodell and I talked about those days for a few moments before I turned on my tape recorder.
I liked Goodell. He was smart and funny. He was poignant talking about his mother and made it clear he intended to continue to be a hands-on commissioner when it came to player behavior or, more accurately, non-behavior.
My story reflected that. He was, in my mind, a clear upgrade from Paul Tagliabue, who had pretty much ridden Pete Rozelle’s coattails and had gotten the trains to run on time, which basically consisted of re-negotiating TV contracts every few years while dealing from the greatest position of strength in league-TV negotiatons in history. The cover showed a smiling Goodell, holding a football, looking great in a dark suit.
Turns out the only part of the story I got right was that he looked great in a suit.
The first crack in the veneer had actually come before the story was published. Magazine pieces usually have a month to two-month “lead” time. In other words, if you’re writing for mid-October for Parade you usually have to submit the piece by about September 1. The story had been edited and was about to be set in print when Janice Kaplan called.
The New York Times had a front page story that day about an NFL-commissioned study done by the University of Michigan which showed that ex-NFL players between the ages of 30 and 49 were NINETEEN times more likely to have some form of dementia than non-football players. Aiello was quoted in the piece as saying, “There are thousands of retired players who do not have memory problems.”
He also pointed out that telephone surveys were often faulty.
In other words, “Nothing to see here, move along.”
Kaplan wanted a quote from Goodell to insert into the piece. “Just a sentence or two,” she said. “Is he concerned, not concerned? Is this a big deal, not a big deal?”
I sent a note to Aiello, saying I just needed a sentence or two and, while I would rather talk to Goodell on the phone for five minutes, a quote from the commissioner through Greg would suffice.
Aiello’s answer stunned me. It was a flat no and included a sentence about the Times trying to sensationalize the story. No way was Roger going to dignify the story any further with a quote. I was taken aback. As I said, Aiello had always been both reasonable and amiable in my dealings with him. I felt as if I’d somehow hit a nerve. More likely, the story had.
I wrote a pargraph on the story, inserted Aiello’s refusal to provide any comment from the commissioner and the piece ran two weeks later. It was, as we say in journalism, a “puff” piece, so much so that when I ran into Goodell in a restaurant a couple of months later he walked over to say hello and thanked me for the piece.
We remained on good terms for the next several years. He even came on my CBS radio show in 2013, which was a pretty good get for me. When I tried to question him on why he’d done nothing about the nickname of Washington’s NFL team, he ducked it. I asked again, coming from a different angle.
“Are we going to talk about this all morning?” Goodell asked.
“One more question,” I said. I asked. He ducked. So I asked again.
“You said one more question on this,” he said.
“I lied,” I said.
He laughed. He never answered the question.
And then came Ray Rice.
I honestly believe when the Goodell story is written, Rice will be an important — and very unfortunate — part of his legacy. Everyone knows the basics of the story: Rice and his then-fiancee Janay Palmer were arrested in February of 2014 in Atlantic City after an altercation in an elevator. Rice was seen on videotape dragging the unconscious Palmer from the elevator.
After investigating, Goodell suspended Rice for all of two games, causing an outcry from the media and women’s groups. In September, TMZ was able to get video from inside the elevator, which showed Rice punching Palmer (who he’d married in the spring) in the face. Only then did the Ravens release Rice and Goodell changed his suspension to “indefinite.”
Goodell held an embarrassing press conference in the aftermath of the incident in which he began by promising “full transparency,” and then ducked virtually every question. He hasn’t been the same commissioner since.
His Rice suspension was eventually overridden because the second suspension was, in affect, double-jeopardy. Based on Palmer’s condition when she was dragged from the elevator, Goodell should not have needed the second video to understand that Rice needed a major punishment, not a two-game wrist slap.
Then came “Deflategate,” Goodell attempting to somehow rehabilitate his tough-guy image by suspending Tom Brady for four games for deflating footballs (twice Rice’s initial suspension) and spending millions of dollars in legal fees to make some twisted point.
That served to make him a laughing stock, especially when the suspension so damaged the Patriots that they went on to win the Super Bowl.
But head injuries remain Goodell’s biggest problem no matter how often he claims, “Football is safer now than it has ever been.”
The weakness of the rules allegedly protecting players was evident again in the Super Bowl. New England wide receiver Brandin Cooks was crushed by Philadelphia’s Malcolm Jenkins on a clear helmet-to-helmet hit when Jenkins launched himself at Cooks as he turned to try to run after a catch.
Cooks was knocked out — literally — and knocked out of the game. There was no penalty on Jenkins. Here’s the problem: under the rules, the officials got the call — or the no-call — right. Cooks was not deemed “defenseless.” He had possession and was starting to run with the ball.
If you are trying to protect players; if you are trying to avoid head injuries, then ANY helmet-to-helmet contact must lead to a penalty and/or ejection. In college, if there’s a helmet-to-helmet hit, the penalty is automatic. The only judgment the officials make (after a booth-review) is whether it is deemed intentional and leads to ejection.
Forget the catch rule. That can be fixed by common sense. The NFL has to change the helmet-to-helmet rule. Trust me, if Jenkins had known the rules would not allow his hit on Cooks and he might face ejection, he wouldn’t have led with his helmet while making that tackle. But Cooks was a runner — bombs away.
Of course Goodell and the owners don’t want to hear this. Neither does the President of the United States, who seems to thinks NFL players are Roman gladiators and if they’re maimed or brain-damaged for life, it’s okay because the game is more entertaining with blow-up hits.
Goodell doesn’t want TV ratings going any lower because of people agreeing with the need for violence and calling any rules-changes to protect players the product of “snowflakes.”
In 1969, Goodell’s father stood up to the president of the United States on an issue far more serious than this one. He was very proud of him. Perhaps he should follow his father’s path and do what is right and try to preserve quality of life for his players — present and future. He can’t, unfortunately, change the past.
John Feinstein’s most recent book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—has been on the New York Times bestseller list for almost four months. His latest Young Adult books, “Backfield Boys—A Mystery in Black and White,” was chosen by the Junior Literary Guild as one of the best books of 2017.