What I Learned From My Conversation with Roger Goodell

As I recounted yesterday, I had the opportunity to talk with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.  While I shared the content of the call, I wanted time to appropriately evaluate the claims Mr. Goodell made.  Having studied the documents sent to me by the NFL, I can now speak frankly about the call.

To be clear, my sincere belief is that Mr. Goodell called me because I am a season ticket holder of the Indianapolis Colts, and not because I am an author, blogger, or member of the PFWA.  This point is important because it speaks to why the Commissioner would take time to call.  I believe the NFL is worried about the way the league is perceived by their most important clients: season-ticket holders.  While I’m sure the commissioner would affirm the value of all fans, the life blood of the NFL is the season-ticket holder. 

The fact that the league is so concerned with the feelings of season-ticket holders tells me two things.  First, the league is striving to provide excellent customer service.  Taking care of customers is the principle job of most every industry, and the fact that Mr. Goodell took the time to call me speaks highly of the league’s focus and priorities when it comes to customer service.  If for no other reason, his call should be celebrated as an excellent example of how to care for clients.  My overall esteem for him and the league skyrocketed as a result of his call.  He made me feel heard, and nothing matters more to a customer.

However, the fact that the league reacted so sensitively to my rather tepid criticisms speaks to how concerned they are about alienating fans.  I called the the conference call ‘boring’ and ‘a waste of time’ ( while ignoring the issue almost entirely here on 18to88), and they reacted instantly.  It was enough to make me wonder what kind of internal polling they are seeing.  My comments, which were echoed by many fans, touched a nerve.  I found that fascinating.  In the end, the conversation did accomplish the purpose of assuring me that the original conference call was on the up and up.  Many fans questioned the legitimacy of that call, but I think such charges are impossible to believe now.  The nature of the questions last week was clearly random bad luck.  The league is trying to engage with fans, not duck them.  Had fans asked Mr. Goodell difficult questions, I believe he would have answered them.

As for the specifics of my conversation with Mr. Goodell, my questions all revolved around one central theme.  I wanted to gauge where things stood in the negotiation process by measuring Mr. Goodell’s willingness to admit any regret or culpability that the current situation had deteriorated.  Obviously, I don’t hold him personally responsible for the lockout, but as the representative of the owners, I was hoping to hear some small concession of regret or some vague hint of an apology that could signal a thaw or provide me with some hope that the league was ready to compromise.

 

The first question I raised was related to the television contract suit that seemed to provide a flash-point for owner/player mistrust.  The contracts the NFL signed were found to be in violation of their contractual obligations to the players. Federal Judge David Doty ruled that the NFL had not acted in the best interests of their business partners.  My question was if the Commissioner had any regrets about the effect the contracts had on the NFLPA.  The players have long cited the television deals with their alleged provision of ‘lockout insurance’ as one of their chief evidences that desertification was an inevitable step.  They did not believe the owners were truly willing to deal.

Instead of expressing regret, the Commissioner strongly implied the only problem involving the contracts was the ruling of Judge Doty.  He felt that the lengthy hearing before the Special Master produced the correct ruling.  I noted, with imprecision, that even the Special Master had ruled in part against the NFL. Mr. Goodell clarified the nature of his ruling, and later ensured I received a copy of it (with financial data redacted).  His message was inescapable: the NFL did nothing wrong, and Judge Doty’s decision was incorrect.  No ethical or legal violations had occurred.  No mistakes were made. There was nothing to regret or apologize for.

I admit that while I had read Judge Doty’s ruling in its entirety, I had not read the Special Master’s until yesterday.  I am admittedly not a lawyer, but I found the ruling of Federal Judge Doty much more convincing.  I think the NFL’s assessment of their own behavior is incorrect.  However, my goal was not to argue the merits of the league’s conduct with the Commissioner, but rather to see if he regretted it.  His answer was clear and unequivocal.  I do not agree with his logic or conclusions, but I give him credit for giving a straight, clear answer to the question.

Satisfied that my question was answered, I moved on to the issue of the behavior of the owners. Specifically I mentioned the infamous comments made by Jerry Richardson to Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, as well as the behavior of Jerry Jones in the week the talks broke down.  Many media sources cited the antics of both men as being polarizing moments that created an atmosphere of disrespect in the talks.  I felt this was an opportunity for the Commissioner to express ‘safe regret’. A simple, “Yes, heated things were said, and I think we all wish we had handled things better,” would have signaled something about his attitude.

Instead, Mr. Goodell was again firm.  The behavior of the owners was in no way inappropriate. It was normal for the setting of difficult negotiations. It was not offensive nor were the players in question offended by the behavior.

I was surprised by his answer, but he reaffirmed it. He was there. The media was not there.  I asked him if that meant he disputed media accounts of what happened.  He said he didn’t need the media to tell him what happened because he was there, and no one was offended.  Ultimately, this is a truth claim. However, it is not one within my power to verify.  The Michael Silvers and Peter Kings of the world are the ones who can obtain that information, but I am left with nothing but Mr. Goodell’s word.  I admit that I find his claim that no one was offended and that the owners’ behavior did not create a negative atmosphere difficult to accept.  However, lacking any first or even second hand knowledge to the contrary, fairness dictates that I cannot dismiss his comments.  He assured me he was telling the truth, and I cannot disprove him, though I harbor doubts.  Until I hear otherwise from someone present, I have to take him at his word.

I found his answer was telling.  In as many words, he was saying, “This is not our fault.”  He was unwilling for the NFL to accept any culpability for the lockout, even obliquely.  The league’s behavior was strictly above board.  This was his message.

I pressed on him on the fact that the owners seemed to drag their feet on crafting an actual proposal to the players.  I asked him if he wished the NFL would have made their initial proposal earlier, as my understanding was that as of the beginning of March, they had not fully done so.  His answer was that they had been negotiating for many months and that the owners had made a proposal far ealier. He said he would send me the details of that proposal.  This was different from my understanding, so I had no choice but to take him at his word at the time.

My research into this point was telling.  First, I got a note from the NFL some hours later saying:

I know the Commissioner mentioned an earlier proposal from Fall 2009, but we won’t be able to send that to you as it is confidential and was not made public at the time.

With the note were links to many stories showing the parties had been in talks for some time.  As I continued to dig, I could find no evidence of any kind of firm offer from the NFL on the public record.  After talks in November, it seems that the discussions with the NFLPA took shape and became much more specific, however there were still issues in which spefics were lacking or vague.  The NFL spent a lot of time and energy promoting an 18 game season, for instance, but the idea seemed to lack the character of a true, specific plan/offer until much later in the process.

Ultimately, this is the one point where I feel the Commissioner ‘lawyered’ me.  It is true the NFL certainly had made proposals prior to March. It is true there were negotiations.  However, I also believe it to be true that the NFL was stalling.  Antics like walking out of talks in February after the union made their first offer were counter-productive and juvenile.  The fact that it is difficult find specific details of what the NFL offered the players before March speaks to the fact that they whatever negotiations were occurring were far too preliminary in nature.  In the end, the Commissioner was unable to provide me the specific information he promised, leaving me to draw conclusions from whatever I could find.  My conclusion is that while specifics were clearly discussed, I can find no evidence of a complete, comprehensive offer covering all aspects of the CBA before March of 2011.  That offer may well exist, but no one seems to reference it or describe it in any media accounts.  In the end, I find Mr. Goodell’s statement to be not false, but rather unverifiable.

Again, the larger issue is not the specifics of Mr. Goodell’s response.  His stance alone is telling.  This was an open opportunity to accept some small measure of responsibility for the impasse.  He declined to do so.  Again, the message was that this is the players’ fault. They walked away.  The NFL negotiated in good faith for a long time and more negotiations in a mediated setting are what is needed.  Of course, if in fact negotiations had been going on fruitlessly since November of 2009 as Mr. Goodell said, then it begs the question why he thinks more negotiations would lead to a settlement.  It certainly seems to me that they were producing more heat than light. 

I gave him one final opportunity to provide me with any sign the league was willing to take responsibility for the situation. I asked if there was anything he would have done differently.  He expressed to me that while he obviously has run through the situation in his head, he honestly feels there’s nothing more or different that he could have done to prevent the impasse.

To me, his message was clear: This is not the NFL’s fault.

I take that to be very bad news indeed.

Until all sides are willing to find some middle ground and admit past mistakes, I don’t see how there can be any resolution to the NFL labor crisis short of a court order.  Mr. Goodell asks for more mediation and negotiation, when years of negotiation have yielded no results. Furthermore, the NFL at present is unwilling to admit any fault at all for the labor stoppage.  The league wants fans to blame the players exclusively.

Ultimately, I had no interest or need to argue the merits of the Commissioner’s individual points. I was more interested in their collective message.  I don’t agree with Mr. Goodell’s assessment of the situation, but I’m glad he answered how he did. By being direct, he answered the real questions I had. Will the league budge even a little?  Will the league take any amount of responsibility? 

The answer from the Commissioner was emphatic: No.

The owners are worried the ticket buyers will blame them for the lockout, though it is obvious the owners do not blame themselves.

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