Originally Published: February 4, 2015 6:01 a.m.
After the Patriots defeated the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX the 2014 NFL season came to a merciful end. And not a minute too soon for Roger Goodell, the embattled leader of the nation's most popular and financially successful sports league.
The popularity of the NFL is both a blessing and a curse. The league has experienced unprecedented financial success - approximately $10 billion a year in revenue, on track to the avowed goal of $25 billion a year within a decade. But there's more to success than the bottom line on a financial statement.
Along with that popularity comes the intense scrutiny of every move, including - and perhaps especially - every oversight and misstep. In that regard, Goodell may have had the most difficult and challenging job in sports during the past year. As the commissioner said during his annual Super Bowl confab with the media, "...it has been a tough year. It has been a tough year for me personally. It's been a year of I would say humility and learning...We obviously, as an organization, have gone through adversity. But more importantly, it's been adversity for me." Boy was he right.
While the issue of player domestic violence dominated the early season headlines and PSI - underinflated footballs - dominated the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, there were two constant themes throughout the year: Goodell's lack of credibility and inept leadership. It didn't matter whether the ball was properly inflated or not, Goodell fumbled it repeatedly. He oftentimes appeared incompetent, as he did in failing to conduct a thorough investigation of the Ray Rice incident, a conclusion confirmed by the league's own investigation. At other times he went AWOL, as he did when he failed to address Deflategate for days after the issue was first reported by the media.
Such action - and inaction - may be acceptable to his bosses, the NFL owners who pay him $44 million per year to represent their interests. But they aren't Goodell's only constituency. The league, and by extension Goodell, represents the players, fans, sponsors, communities and yes, the media in addition to the owners. The NFL also has to respond to the politicians who have the ability to impact the league in so many ways, including funding for stadium construction, television blackout rules and antitrust legislation. And even they have been scrutinizing Goodell's performance.
On the eve of the Super Bowl, Arizona Senator John McCain took Goodell and the league to task for their inability to properly address the controversies that dogged them throughout the season. "One thing we do in politics when there's an issue that arises, smart politicians have a rapid-response team. What is the reaction of Mr. Goodell in this latest one (Deflategate)? He's MIA as far as I can tell. If I were them, I would review my whole PR scheme." Setting aside for a moment that politicians are wont to give others advice in order to turn the spotlight away from their own failings and misdeeds, McCain is spot on.
More from Goodell's pre-Super Bowl presser: "Football's popularity is extraordinary," he said. "We know the NFL's impact is far-reaching. It means we have enormous responsibility to lead every day by example." On that score, Goodell lost a long time ago. Whether he can regain the credibility that is so vital to the success of any leader remains to be seen. It starts with being open, accessible, sincere, conciliatory and decisive; characteristics that, certainly in the past year, have eluded the commissioner.
Incidents beyond Goodell's control will create challenges regardless of how vigilant he and the league may be. But Goodell can certainly control how he responds to those challenges. As he proved during his Super Bowl conference, that remains a work in progress. CNN's Rachel Nichols asked the Commissioner about the appearance of conflicts of interest regarding the league's recent investigations. Goodell responded by saying, "I think we have done an excellent job of bringing outside consultants in. Somebody has to pay them, Rachel. Unless you're volunteering, which I don't think you are, we will do that."
Ouch! Sounds like the same imperious - and impervious - Commissioner that created so many of his own problems. Like the Seahawks, how Goodell reinvents himself will determine how successful he can be in 2015.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.