Niyo: Press is bad but business is very good for Goodell, NFL

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Roger Goodell

Detroit — It’s worth remembering, even on nights like these, as the Lions hosted a “fan forum” Tuesday with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at Ford Field, that he doesn’t really work for them.

He doesn’t work for the players, either.

No, Goodell only truly serves a constituency of 32 owners — more than half of them billionaires — that he routinely refers to as “the membership.”

And for the membership, business is good. So despite all the bad press, from the anthem protests to the high-profile player suspensions to last season’s notable drop in television ratings, it’s hardly a surprise that Goodell reportedly is close an agreement on a contract extension. One that’d keep the commissioner, beginning his 11th year of “protecting the shield” — taking all the slings and arrows that job entails — in place through 2024, through another labor deal and another round of TV contract negotiations.

“That’s news to me,” Goodell laughed Tuesday night, before offering another impromptu stump speech.

“I’m really privileged to do this,” he continued. “This is an extraordinary job and an extraordinary responsibility and it’s one that I’m passionate about and I love it. I would be honored to continue to do it, as long as I can contribute in the right way. So we’re having discussions and we’ll see how it goes. But the reality is, I believe the best days of the NFL are ahead, and as long as I can contribute to that, I would.”

Who wouldn’t? Goodell has earned an estimated $212 million in his first decade on the job, which is more than five-time Super Bowl champ Tom Brady has earned in his entire career. And when I asked some of the Lions’ players in the locker room Tuesday if they had any questions for the commissioner while he was in town, linebacker Tahir Whitehead might’ve had the best one.

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“How can I get some of that money, man?” he joked. “I need some of that money he’s getting. That guaranteed cash.”

Of course, that money’s a drop in the bucket when you consider that league revenue approached $14 billion last year, more than halfway to Goodell’s stated goal of reaching $25 billion by the year 2027.

And surely it doesn’t go unnoticed by the six-member compensation committee tasked with drawing up Goodell’s new contract that the average value of franchises has more than doubled, to $2.3 billion, according to Forbes, since he was named commissioner. To put that in perspective, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie bought his team for less than $200 million back in the mid-1990s.

And for every owner who’s unhappy with the commissioner, whether it’s the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, currently fuming about a six-game suspension handed down to star running back Ezekiel Elliott, or, say, New England’s Robert Kraft in the wake of the Deflategate saga, there’s usually a couple dozen — or more — quietly cheering.

Goodell’s savvy in that regard is unmistakable, even it often slips under the radar with the general public. But visits like this one, which included Goodell and other NFL executives touring Ford Field on Tuesday with Lions owner Martha Ford and team president Rod Wood, showing off $100 million in stadium renovations, are just a part of it.

Tuesday was a chance for the Lions to make their pitch to host the NFL draft, if not another Super Bowl. Wood said Lions are bidding for 2020 and ’21, and while Goodell noted the league has 24 cities applying, the Lions’ president also had the line of the night, joking, “I promised him that if the draft came here, no one would boo him.”

Meeting the ‘members’

Yet this also was a chance for the commissioner to meet with one of his owners, one of the

“Mrs. Ford is, to me, is all about doing things at the highest level, and she has demonstrated a tremendous commitment at the league level,” said Goodell, who recounted a recent trip the 91-year-old owner made to Los Angeles, leaving her home at 4:30 a.m., spending all day “actively” participating in owners’ meetings, and then flying home late that night. “But I know her passion is Detroit, I know her passion with the Lions, and I know her passion with getting the best people around her to make the right decisions. ...

“And I think that is something that everybody here should feel great about. She cares greatly about this community and this organization and I think she’s committed to it.”

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In a question-and-answer session with a select group of 100 or so Lions fans, Goodell reiterated his own commitment on a variety of issues, from player safety to the league’s personal-conduct policy. He did his best to sidestep a question about the recent player protests and later, in a brief media scrum, he dismissed the notion that quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been blackballed by the league.

He also struck a conciliatory tone when asked about the current CBA. Last week, DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, told Sports Illustrated “the likelihood of either a strike or a lockout in 2021 is almost a virtual certainty.”

Smith was merely giving voice to the discontent among the union’s rank-and-file, as this last deal has left some wondering what was really gained from that 136-day work stoppage in 2011. Sure, the salary cap has risen, said Glover Quin, the Lions’ veteran safety and NFLPA rep, climbing from $120 million in 2011 to $167 this season.

“And a lot of money is being put in players’ pockets,” Quin said. “But you also can see ways (the CBA) has been manipulated. They put that rookie wage scale in to reward veterans and you see more veterans getting cut.

“And now you’ve got no middle class, hardly.”

Lord of discipline

And for myriad other reasons, including Goodell’s self-appointed status as arbiter of discipline and the court triumphs that affirmed it, the players aren’t at all happy with where things stand, sitting with easily the most owner-friendly labor deal among the four major U.S. pro sports.

“We believe that we have a labor agreement that’s working well for the players and working well for the NFL and I think, as a result, working well for fans,” Goodell insisted Tuesday. “We think we should continue that. Now, does that mean we think it’s perfect? No. Does that mean the players think it’s perfect? No. But this should be a basis for us to work together and get it solved.

“I think projections of whether there’s going to be a work stoppage or not are really not the point.

“The point should be let’s sit down and figure out our differences and get it solved and do what’s right for our fans and the game. … And that’s what I hope will happen.”

But if they can’t — and Smith’s right, they probably won’t without another labor shutdown — make no mistake, the commissioner knows who is signing his paycheck.