I’m not sure if there has ever been a more natural punching bag in the world of sports than NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. It is as if he were genetically engineered to be booed. He’s a legacy kid — the son of a U.S. senator — who has worked for the NFL, and only the NFL, his entire life. (Yes, he started as an intern and worked his way up, but his lineage surely had a bit to do with his ascent.) He got his job by successfully convincing the league’s owners that he was the perfect vessel for funneling as much money as humanly imaginable into their pockets. He has a level of self-seriousness that matches his sport, with constant platitudes about “the Shield,” a warmth with media that rivals the Sackler family’s, and the sense of humor of a lamppost. He dresses like the buffest middle manager at your local insurance company; he speaks in a way that renders language useless and absurd (“We will examine all of the issues that need to be examined, and we are comfortable with the examination process”); he married a Fox News anchor. He’s Roger Goodell. He is the personification of the corporate soullessness of modern sports.
I also am pretty sure he has won. The guy who has seemed on the verge of being fired for more than a decade now may have the most secure job in sports. The supposedly rudderless leader has navigated his league through the most difficult period in its history. I think Goodell is going to outlive us all.
As the NFL season kicks off this week, with the disturbingly immortal Tom Brady and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers hosting the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night, it seems undeniable that the NFL is in as strong a position as it has been during Goodell’s now-15-year tenure. The league is making more money than it ever has; its power in the broadcast-television space is so overwhelming that it’s essentially keeping the entire thing afloat; and it has, for the moment, managed to keep at arm’s length the political world that had threatened to subsume it. (It helps that there isn’t a lunatic president who keeps yelling about Colin Kaepernick every time someone puts a microphone in front of him.) Eighteen months ago, the NFL looked hopelessly mired in a never-ending cavalcade of controversies. Now, people just can’t wait for some football. As much as it pains me to do so: I think we have to give Goodell a lot of the credit for that.
I’m not sure Goodell has had any overarching crisis-management strategy for the ails that have plagued the NFL in recent years, from domestic-violence arrests for players to fraught political battles to player protests to deflated footballs to COVID-19 to the great existential threat that is player concussions and CTE. I just think he has stuck with the one thing he’s fundamentally good at — making money for the owners of his league. His philosophy has always been simple and as fundamentally American as the colonize-the-other-team’s-territory sport itself: Maximize revenue … and everything else will work itself out.
The NFL did suffer a significant revenue drop in 2020 — down $4 billion, to $12 billion — as might be expected when a pandemic almost cancels the season. But that money came out of the teams’ pockets, not the league’s, since the loss was largely the result of a lack of fans in the stands and the ancillary revenue — tickets, memorabilia, parking, local sponsorships, beer sales, those sorts of things. What Goodell could control — television payments, existing media contracts — was all paid in full. Ratings were down for the Super Bowl, but it was still the most-watched television program in the country this year, and the three top-rated shows of the 2020–21 season were all NFL games. And this was in a down year! In 2010, Goodell claimed he wanted the NFL to reach $25 billion in revenue by 2027, a figure he was widely mocked for. But even with the pandemic as an obstacle, he’s well on his way thanks to even bigger television deals, including the one he just signed with Amazon Prime to stream Thursday Night Football games exclusively starting in 2022. (That’s $1.2 billion a year.) And that’s a cheap one: According to CNBC, Viacom, Fox, and Comcast are paying more than $2 billion each for their NFL packages, and Disney is paying $2.7 billion for its package. The Amazon Prime deal was a sign that Goodell and the NFL recognize the importance of streaming moving forward; some analysts think the NFL could be making our streaming packages more expensive all on its own.
The NFL’s profits can be enough to make its other problems go away or at least fade from the forefront. The labor issues roiling baseball right now? The NFL got the players union to agree to an 11-year deal right as the pandemic hit the United States last spring. Last summer, the NFL faced a potential racial and labor-force reckoning, particularly in the wake of its blackballing of Kaepernick, but Goodell did the smart corporate thing: He made a video saying that “Black lives matter,” announced that the NFL was giving $250 million over the next decade to “combat systemic racism,” and put famous athlete and civil-rights activist Dr. Harry Edwards in a series of commercials promoting social justice. (Edwards said last week that the NFL was focusing more on messaging than action, but no one was paying attention — they just saw the commercials.) See: The NFL cares and empathizes. Now let’s play some football. The league is allowing its players to have six approved social-justice slogans (“End Racism,” “Stop Hate,” “It Takes All of Us,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Inspire Change,” and “Say Their Stories”) on its helmets this year, which will surely fire up your MAGA uncle but doesn’t do much to counteract Edwards’s accusation that the league is merely talking a good game.
More than anything, the money has allowed the owners themselves — the people employing Goodell and paying him more than $40 million a year — to avoid changing much. This overwhelmingly right-leaning group has gotten the best of all worlds: Their games aren’t being disrupted by protests, Trump isn’t around to constantly use their sport to stoke culture wars anymore, and the money is flowing more reliably than ever. Add in a perfect mix of old stars like Brady and Aaron Rodgers and young, exciting phenoms like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson and, well, you’ve got the perfect TV package. It’s all coming up aces for everybody.
There are still problems with the league, as there always will be with an entity so massive and powerful. There’s the CTE issue. There’s the NFL’s continued difficulty in figuring out what to do with alleged serial sexual assaulter Deshaun Watson. There’s COVID-19, which no less a figure than Brady believes will be a bigger issue this year than it was last year. (His argument is that the full stands will present problems, but while you should expect a spate of positive cases this first week — players went away for Labor Day just like you did — it’s tough to see how the league’s high vaccination rate doesn’t give it a considerable cushion that it didn’t enjoy in 2020.) But look at the major plots heading into this season. Other than vaccine holdouts like Cole Beasley and Kirk Cousins, COVID-19 isn’t the lead story; every NFL stadium will be open at full capacity. The usual pre-pandemic stuff is dominating headlines: player contract holdouts, Tom Brady, playoff predictions, fantasy-football draft rankings. It’s like a typical year, and in a typical year, the NFL lords over everything and hoovers up every available dime. A lot of the credit for that, I’m legitimately sad to say, has to go to Roger Goodell. The guy whose head most of the country was calling for two years ago has navigated his league’s political and societal minefields and has it back doing what it’s uniquely designed to do best: take money out of our pockets. Through that process, he and his league have been purged. You really do have to give him credit. Dammit.