Trial by fire

Discussion in 'NFL Zone' started by 03EBZ06, Jul 30, 2007.

  1. 03EBZ06

    03EBZ06 Need2Speed

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    Goodell couldn't have predicted first-year challenges

    Posted: Monday July 30, 2007 9:30AM; Updated: Monday July 30, 2007 9:57AM

    NEW YORK -- As Roger Goodell nears his one-year anniversary as NFL commissioner, he's bugged that some members of the media describe him as a hanging judge who makes knee-jerk reactions and comes down hard on repeat offenders. "I don't like that,'' Goodell told in a wide-ranging, 60-minute interview in his Park Avenue office last Thursday. "I don't think I've been heavy-handed. 'Hanging judge' implies to me that someone has not been thoughtful or responsible in his actions, and I don't believe that's the case.''

    The irony of Goodell's first year is the hot-button issue he faces today -- the Michael Vick dogfighting nightmare -- wasn't even on his radar when he was appointed to succeed Paul Tagliabue last Aug. 8. That's the thing about running any big business, the big issues are often a moving target.

    I would argue Goodell has been at his best when the target is moving the fastest. The Vick case is likely a better example of how Goodell has handled player discipline than the suspensions handed to Pacman Jones, Chris Henry and Tank Williams for violating the league's personal conduct policy. Jones' 16-game suspension, Henry's eight and Williams' six weren't tough calls. The three players had 22 combined arrests or run-ins with the law. The Vick call was tougher.

    When Falcons owner Arthur Blank wanted to suspend Vick for four weeks last Monday, after he'd been indicted by a federal grand jury for involvement in dogfighting, Goodell understood exactly where he was coming from.

    There's a good chance Vick misled both men to their face by telling them he had nothing to do with dogfighting and next-to-nothing to do with the home where it allegedly took place in Virginia. That, plus the immense public pressure to discipline Vick, were spurring Blank's thinking.

    But Goodell, worried that the Vick case could end up like the Duke lacrosse case (with the exoneration of all defendants), told Blank he was taking over the discipline in this case, thus the indefinite suspension, with pay, while the league reviews the indictment.

    Goodell told me the league has hired the former U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Eric Holder, to investigate whether Vick has violated the league's personal conduct policy. Holder, who helped write the policy, will confirm for the league whether Vick has done anything to circumvent the policy, such as illegal gambling, knowingly lying to league officials about his involvement in dogfighting or his presence as the Virginia home when dogfighting was occurring. "If he lied to me that there was never any dogfighting going on at his property ... then that's a violation of the policy,'' Goodell said.

    Goodell, 48, has been hands-on around the NFL in more ways than one. He moves from office to office at league headquarters, asking personal questions to vice presidents and cafeteria cashiers. And last week, at the NFL's annual company outing at Giants Stadium, he was flagged for defensive pass interference in a pickup game on the stadium's FieldTurf, tweaking a leg muscle in the process. "There was no pass interference,'' he scoffed to director of officiating Mike Pereira in the office the next day.

    Where Tagliabue was often aloof, Goodell, according to Dallas owner Jerry Jones, "is about as inclusive as a CEO can be. Sometimes a business leader can ask you your opinion when the decision's already been made, just to give you the impression he cares what you think. With Roger, he talks to you before the decision is too far cooked. You have definite input.''

    When Goodell talks to players, he often mentions how it's a privilege to play in the league, not a right. He says that stance "has resounded more with fans than anything else because I think that's how the fans look at it. I met a TSA screener at Reagan Airport and he said, 'I like what you're doing. I think I like the fact that you're asking people to meet a higher standard.' It's a privilege for me to be in this office, too.''

    "When [Goodell] talked to us at the rookie symposium,'' Cleveland tackle Joe Thomas said Sunday, "he told us to respect the NFL shield. A lot of the guys thought he was saying respect the league, but he was really saying respect everything about the league -- the teams, the players, everything -- because if the league as a whole prospers, the players prosper. It's sort of like something your mom or dad would say.''

    Goodell's biggest looming test: The re-opening of the collective bargaining agreement. Both players and owners have the right to ask for the deal to be renegotiated as early as November 2008, and it's very likely the small-market owners, who want more revenue-sharing with the big-city clubs, will push for the deal to be scrapped and reworked.

    "My objective is to try and resolve the differences,'' Goodell said. "People don't want to hear about work stoppages. They want to know that football is going to be there on Sunday afternoon. That's my job.''

    Selected chunks of my Q & A with Goodell last Thursday: A year ago, I would say that retired players' benefits and dogfighting might have been Nos. 29 and 2,029 on your list of priorities to address as commissioner, and now they're one and two. What does that say about this job?

    Goodell: You can never anticipate all the issues. We have to make sure the integrity of the game stays at the highest possible level. You know, I could not anticipate that there was going to be a player alleged to be involved with dogfighting. But that goes to the broader issue of making sure the game has a high level of integrity, which is, to me, player conduct.

    I think what it demonstrates is the complexity of the job and the fact that you're in a highly public business. You're not running a public company; but in many ways, it's more public because you have a tremendous responsibility to the fans. And that is an awesome responsibility that keeps you up at night, quite frankly, making sure that we continue to do right by the game of football, right by the NFL, right by our fans. Have you talked to Michael Vick?

    Goodell: No. Not since this happened.' You talked to him in April, obviously?

    Goodell: I talked to him at the draft, and he called me in late June. I want to be on the record. Has Michael ever, at any point, said to you he's been involved in dogfighting?

    Goodell: No ... His comments to me were very consistent with what he said publicly: That he does not have any involvement in dogfighting, that he loves dogs, that he would not have any interest in that, that it wasn't happening at his property, and that was his discussion ... And I was very clear with him that if it's happening on your property, it's your responsibility. How about your other conversation with him this year?

    Goodell: "He called me just to tell me how he was doing. He was focused on the offseason, that he was making changes in his life consistent with the discussion we had. He believed he needed to change the people that were around him, to make better decisions, and that he was taking that very seriously. It was having an impact, that he was very focused on football. In America you're innocent until proven guilty; why can't Michael Vick be in training camp? It seems the first statement you guys made as a league was that you were going to allow him to go on with his football life, and then you said in essence, "Hey, let's take a breather, take a leave of absence."

    Goodell: No, I think that [initial] statement -- I don't have it in front of me, but that statement was to caution that these are allegations and charges, not a conviction, and that he does have the right to due process and we should allow the legal process to continue to allow those facts to become clear. Totally consistent with that. That was read that we would allow the legal process to be completed before we did anything. I never contemplated that.

    To me, if you see the last sentence of that statement -- again, I don't have it in front of me -- the last statement was: This will be considered under our personal conduct policy. That's what we've been doing. And so from Tuesday on we have been extremely focused on gathering the facts and making sure we apply the personal conduct policy. We never contemplated we would take no action until the legal process was completed. We don't want to interfere with the legal process in a way that would be appropriate from our standpoint. We are cooperating with the federal authorities. How many players in the NFL -- educated guess -- have some involvement with dogfighting currently?

    Goodell: When this first came up we met with the ASPCA [American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] to ... give us an understanding of what's happening in this world, and I was totally shocked, to be quite honest. I did not realize that this type of activity takes place. I mean, some people call it a sport. It's hard to call it a sport. It's disgusting. It really is very difficult to understand.

    We also asked, because there are "informants" in this world, and convictions are difficult to come by, as you can see; and it's a relatively new law on both the state and federal level. We wanted to see if there was any information that would lead us to believe there are other players involved. We have not been able to uncover a thing. We will continue to look at that. Have you asked your security people when they visit teams this year to talk about dogfighting?

    Goodell: Yes. Again, in establishing a relationship with the ASPCA, last month, they are giving us a lot of information. They're working on how they're going to present it. That will be part of their security presentation, so every player understands, one, it's clearly going to be taken seriously by our office and under the personal conduct policy. Two is to understand more about this world so they have better information. So we are educating each of our players on this. Is the NFL in crisis over this issue?

    Goodell: No. Absolutely not. I think when you look at, we have 2,000 players. You have a handful of players that have had these serious consequences. And I think there's an enormous amount of media attention on them because we are dealing with them. But I do not in any way feel this is a crisis of the National Football League. These are individuals that are involved that do have an impact on us, but we are dealing with it, and dealing with it firmly. In the wake of the NBA ref scandal, do you have any fear that your officials could be tainted in the same way?

    Goodell: Gambling is a fear that any professional sports league has to stay focused on. It is a big issue for the National Football League and has been for many, many years. We have policies that date back a very long time to try to make sure we are doing everything we can to protect ourselves from any undue influence in that world. That includes officials, players, coaches, team officials, anyone associated with the game had to go through some very strict conditions as part of their association with the NFL -- and a very extreme no-tolerance with respect to any association.

    We have done a lot of things that are being discussed publicly with respect to background checks on officials, continuing evaluation of their financial situation. They have to report to us changes in their financial situation, anything that could signal the opportunity for some influence. We move on it very quickly and very firmly ... We are going to be meeting with the NBA and other leagues and authorities to see if there are other steps that can be taken to protect ourselves, again, to see if we can learn anything from this.' What's been the personal toll, if any, on you in the first year? What has been the personal difference in your life today than a year ago today when you could walk down any street in America and nobody would have any idea who you were?

    Goodell: Nothing. I haven't compromised anything on that level. I still walk down the street. I still do everything I've done before. I think one aspect of making the transition from chief operating officer to commissioner is, one, the public recognition and, two, the fact people do treat you differently, which I find, frankly, a little uncomfortable because I'm still the same person I was a year ago. Retired players ... Do you think the league is doing enough for former players who are dissatisfied with how they're being treated medically after they leave the game?

    Goodell: "I am very focused on the medical issues. I think we as a league and as a union need to be very focused on: Are we providing the right kind of care, services, support to former players that have medical issues? And I know Gene [Upshaw, NFLPA executive director] is. There are a variety of issues. You have the concussion issue. What are the effects of concussions or multiple concussions on a player at some point? I've talked to a lot of these players myself. I had lunch with Merrill Hoge, talked with Wayne Chrebet. We're doing a study on this to really understand what this is ...

    "It's a hard thing for people at 35 to say: My career is over. I'm a young man. The reality is when we talk about this, I was just now at the rookie symposium, somebody asked me the question, 'What's the best advice you can give me?' I said, 'Realize today that you are not going to play football for the rest of your life. It is not a lifelong career.'

    "We had this concussion seminar last month, which I think was helpful in getting everybody, including the people in the league from our medical staffs, and people outside of the staff that have a different perspective to add to our debate. But the National Football League has led the way with respect to discovering a lot of the things with respect to concussions. Our research has been extremely helpful.'' Do you feel, at this point, that you're close to establishing some sort of rule about when a player would be eligible to go back in after he has been concussed?

    Goodell: "It's difficult. But it's difficult here because our data clearly demonstrates that our medical teams are doing a terrific job of making good medical decisions. And that's what you want. You want the doctors making medical decisions, not a commissioner sitting here at 280 Park making medical decisions. We have outstanding medical care for these players. I think it's unmatched.'' Then, you don't buy the conflict of interest charge that some of these [medical] guys, because they're employed by teams, are going to naturally lean to putting players back in?

    Goodell: "No. In fact ... right now, it's indicating we had a six-year study of players with respect to how the concussions were managed ... It clearly demonstrates there's been a much more conservative approach with respect to managing that return-to-play issue. Guys were not returned as quickly. They're not returning during the game.'' Best book read on vacation this year.

    Goodell: "The best book I read was in Maine by Sally Jenkins. ['The Real All-Americans: The Team That Changed a Game, a People, a Nation.] Have you read it?'' No.

    Goodell: "You've got to read it. It is spectacular. I barely could put it down. I read it in a very short period of time. It's a fabulous book. The thing I love so much about it [was] it talked about the influence football had on our nation, on a lot of people. It demonstrated, I believe, that the game of football can have an impact outside of just Sunday afternoons. I think it really does. There's no greater unifying force than a football team in a community, bringing people together. Not just literally 70,000 people in a stadium every weekend, but to go to identify with, come together about and share the success and the failures together. That's a wonderful thing in our society.'' Best piece of advice you got in your first year.

    Goodell: "Deal with issues directly. Face your detractors.'' Who'd it come from?

    Goodell: "Gary Bettman [the NHL commissioner]. He said, 'Don't avoid the people who are saying things that you don't agree with.' ... It really resonated with me. I've always tried to talk to people who have different perspectives.'' Do you feel, when you sit back at night, 'I've done a pretty good job this year?'

    Goodell: "My nature is to look forward and to say, What are the challenges ahead? It really doesn't matter what I've done over the last year with respect to how I managed the league, because if I don't do a good job going forward, I've got a bigger problem and the league's got a bigger problem.''

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