By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — If we’re being honest, the whole “Roger Goodell coming to Foxboro” storyline got a bit out of hand in recent weeks. The thought of the commissioner attending a Patriots game somehow stoked the creative imaginations of many fans who felt they would have the opportunity to give Roger a piece of their mind and really deliver him some comeuppance for perceived unfavorable treatment toward the local football team.
Realistically, that was never going to happen. If Roger did attend a Patriots playoff game, he would arrive via private entrance, flanked by security, and he would be carefully led to a private suite without having to mingle with the commoners. He’d remain in the box long enough to be shown “enjoying the game” during the television broadcast, and he would carefully exit the stadium under the same careful measures.
The fans could have chanted some mean things at the commissioner, but that’s about as much as they were ever going to do. And the impact of mean chants on a man in that position is just about non-existent.
So yes, the idea of fans being able to really let Roger have it was overblown. But that does not mean his decision to avoid Gillette Stadium this weekend is not a big story.
Actually, the fact that Goodell obviously faced no real threat of harm — be it physical or verbal — makes his decision to steer clear of Foxboro at all costs look even worse.
The fact is this: Roger Goodell is the commissioner of the National Football League. His job requires him to preside over the 32 member clubs in an impartial, even-tempered and judicious manner. He is expected to be trusted to keep the best interests of the league, its owners, its sponsors, its business partners and (last on the list) its players in mind as he serves as the public face of the league.
And, for his troubles, the commissioner is rewarded handsomely. From 2006-14, Goodell earned $180.5 million in salary, averaging out to more than $20 million per year. He was paid $44 million in 2012 alone, with salaries of $35 million in 2013 and $34 million in 2014.
Being paid that much money comes with a price, which usually comes in the form of absorbing some public relations hits for the owners, who essentially serve as the commissioner’s collection of bosses. If your buddy who owns the Ravens doesn’t really want to punish his star player for punching a woman and knocking her unconscious inside of a casino elevator, then you have to be the face of the incredibly soft level of punishment that is enforced. Likewise, when your friend who inherited the Giants doesn’t want his kicker — an admitted spousal abuser — to miss games, then you go ahead and bypass the new domestic violence policy and go with another soft punishment. Granted, it may be the owners in these instances who are the ones lacking morals, but they are in charge, and hey, that’s what friends are for.
And in the case of Roger and New England, when some of those owners get tired of seeing their teams lose so often to the Patriots, sometimes you allow them to get a bit rambunctious in their crafting of conspiracy theories. When your own employees get out of control and start conducting ill-fated “testing procedures” in the middle of an AFC Championship Game, then it’s on you to suddenly become the face of what would become as a big a “scandal” as the sports world has seen in the past 25 years.
When it came to owning that debacle, Goodell seemed to have no issue. He allowed false information to dictate the public narrative for several months before assigning his top assistant to craft a carefully executed “investigative report.” Goodell then fought the union in order to serve as abritrator of Tom Brady’s appeal hearing before again releasing false information in order to control the narrative. Goodell invested millions upon millions of dollars from the league (while his sidekick hypocritically chastised the players union for spending money in order to fight back) to fight the case in a district court and then later in a federal appeals court.
In the name of preserving “the integrity of the game,” Goodell spared no expense in winning this unnecessary crusade that was born on shaky ground from the very start. There was simply no mistaking his willingness to own the saga of “DeflateGate,” as it came to be known.
Except now, when it comes to “facing the music” in the most gentle way imaginable, Goodell is going into hiding. He’s extending his streak of not attending Gillette Stadium to two full seasons and postseasons.
He’s supposed to be the face of the league, yet he can’t bring himself to actually show up in the stadium of that league’s most successful franchise during his tenure. Putting aside the fans’ fantasies of venting their frustration to the commissioner in person, this intentional avoidance creates a major credibility problem for Goodell.
That’s not to say he didn’t already have a credibility problem, but it certainly worsens now, when he has no viable excuse to avoid attending a Patriots game.
So far this postseason, he has made a trip out West to Seattle, where he fondly recalled climbing Mount Rainier (albeit a misspelled version of the mountain) upon touching down. He then went to Atlanta this past Saturday, and he was sure to advertise the greatness of the soon-to-be-opened new Falcons stadium. And on Sunday night, he expressed happiness with being in Kansas City for the “oh I suppose we will move this game to prime time in the name of safety” divisional playoff game on Sunday evening.
It’s been a veritable “How I Spent My Winter Vacation” scrapbook from the face of the National Football League, and with Atlanta already checked off the list of destinations, all signs pointed to Goodell actually having to do his job and visit a place he really does not want to go.
But instead, he’s bailing.
Some might say that he’s choosing Atlanta because it will be the final game in the Georgia Dome. That theory holds no water. For one, the Georgia Dome is not a historic building; it opened in 1992. When Fox tried to show a montage of all of the stadium’s great moments, it included photos from Olympic gymnastics, professional wrestling and a Super Bowl that didn’t involve the Falcons. This is not Lambeau Field. It is the Georgia Dome.
Plus, he was there this past weekend. He’s clearly been making his rounds. Foxboro would be the next logical stop for any commissioner who didn’t hold some sort of grudge or harbor some irrational fear of the franchise that calls that their home.
There’s also the history of Goodell choosing to not attend the season-opening game in 2015, which is the marquee event for the league every September, when the Patriots were unveiling their championship banner and the fans were celebrating Brady’s (albeit short-lived) victory over the commissioner in federal court. There was, of course, no other game on the NFL schedule that night.
The news now is not entirely surprising, as it is just the latest example of Goodell carefully crafting how he is made to look in the public eye. In the dreadful movie “Draft Day,” Goodell is welcomed by adoring cheers as he took the stage for the NFL Draft, which required a significant dosage of creative license. When he delivers his annual “state of the league” address during Super Bowl week, he manages to avoid any tough questions that might reflect poorly on him and his abilities.
Even when asked about being booed just moments after being booed, Goodell’s cognitive dissonance rules the day:
In this sense, it’s not a shocking development that Goodell does not want to appear on television during a highly rated playoff game during which the crowd is heckling him with chants throughout. Of course, Gillette Stadium crowds have managed to heckle him just the same even in his absence (while hosting the Steelers, coincidentally), but the idea of those chants providing the background for closeup shots live on CBS across the country is probably too much for Goodell to bear.
It’s either a vanity issue, or it’s worse. Is Goodell’s relationship with the Krafts more frayed than both sides have let on publicly, to the point that he doesn’t feel welcome inside Gillette Stadium? Does Goodell hold personal feelings of distaste toward the Patriots organization?
Whatever the mystery reason may be, there’s no doubt about this: Goodell’s efforts to steer clear of Foxboro since the launching of “DeflateGate” raise serious questions about how fairly he can treat the Patriots franchise now and going forward, which in turn exposes a serious flaw in Goodell’s ability to judiciously preside over the teams that make up the NFL.
If he is susceptible to allowing personal feelings or fears affect his judgment and if he chooses to hide from a potentially undesirable situation rather than face it head on, then how fit is he really to hold that high-paying, high-profile job? How fit is he to fairly govern all 32 clubs?
How fit is Goodell to be the commissioner of the NFL?
It’s a question that Goodell has invited to be asked. And it’s one he’s unlikely to ever answer.