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Inside the NFL: Owners could have done worse than stick with Goodell

Vic Carucci

Question the timing. With his previous contract not due to expire until after the 2018 season, why did NFL owners feel an urgency to give Roger Goodell a contract extension?

Question the money. With a potential annual salary of $40 million over five years -- on top of the $212.5 million he has already been paid -- why does the guy who oversees the business of the league make so much more than the guys who play?

Question the troubling trends. With declining television ratings, fan and sponsor backlash over player protests during the national anthem and concerns over the lingering effects of concussions -- plus the disproportionately harsher player punishments for marijuana use vs. domestic violence -- why entrust the NFL's future to someone who has had so many problems on his watch?

Question the lack of competition. With a $14-billion-per-year business at stake and the current collective bargaining agreement with players due to expire in 2021, why not see if there was at least one other person who might have been better qualified than the one in charge for more than 11 years?

Question it all, because it's all worth questioning.

Then, when you're finished, you just might arrive at the same conclusions as those who finalized the deal Wednesday. The timing, among other aspects of the extension, made perfect sense. And the league could, in fact, do worse than stick with Goodell as its commissioner through 2023.

Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys owner and loudest critic of lavishing more millions on Goodell, might not agree. He wanted to put a halt to the negotiations and went as far as to threaten a lawsuit if he didn't get his way. Much of Jones' opposition was driven by his anger over the NFL suspending the Cowboys' star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, for six games for an alleged sexual assault, while he was at Ohio State, that never resulted in criminal charges.

Jones wouldn't comment on Goodell's contract extension during a regular appearance on a Dallas radio station Friday, noting that the NFL is scheduled to have "a very important meeting" in Dallas next week and he was "looking forward to that." Although he was criticized for pushing back on doing the deal, Jones, without being specific, did defend his stance by constantly seeking to make "positive change" in the league.

“It’s very, very hard, and if you want to make changes you end up getting a lot of criticism along the way,” Jones said on 105.3 The Fan. “If you’re working in an area and you’re not getting a lot of major pushback, then you should ask yourself whether you should be working in that area.”

It could be argued that Jones' resistance brought a bit of sensibility to the extension. His complaints about Goodell's track record and pay no doubt helped convince the six members of the NFL's compensation committee to construct an agreement that, according to ESPN, is heavy with bonuses and incentives (upwards of 85 percent on top of a base of single-digit-millions).

Such arrangements are fairly common, even on much smaller scales. For instance, when Rick Burton was commissioner of Australia's National Basketball League -- which has teams in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore -- he was required to meet key performance indicators to collect the maximum salary he negotiated.

"The owners said, 'We want this kind of a market share or we want this kind of a TV rating,'" Burton, now a David B. Falk-endowed professor of sport management at Syracuse University, said by phone. "And I think that's like a lot of contracts that we see with athletes, (where the team stipulates), 'If you throw for 4,000 yards and 35 touchdowns, we're going to give you a bonus.'"

Although the specifics of Goodell's deal have yet to be revealed, it's clear that in order to continue making the sort of money he received from his previous contract, he must keep the league's prosperity at the stratospheric levels that owners currently enjoy. That undoubtedly will be put to a stern test during the next round of negotiations for new television contracts to replace the ones that expire after the 2022 season, especially with millennials shifting away from traditional means of viewing of sports and other television programming. It's hard to fathom the ratings dip inspiring network executives to pony up more money than they've already been paying and easier to anticipate those and other revenue streams to lose some of their steam.

Which is exactly why finalizing Goodell's extension well before it expired was a logical move.

"Getting it out of the way would give the owners certainty that they wouldn't have a disgruntled Roger Goodell thinking about himself and his contract at a time when he should be thinking about them and engineering a contract that's going to pay the owners even more than it's ever paid in the past," Burton said. "What they're saying is, 'Listen, we're in a position to get this done. We can take this off the table before we get into negotiations with the players on the collective bargaining agreement, which the players are already signaling they're going to attack, and before we get into broadcast negotiations.'"

There was another concern expressed by Jones that Goodell's new contract had to satisfy: making him more accountable to the owners.

The compensation committee took care of that, too.

“One thing that’s come out of this that’s very good, I believe, is the fact that owners are going to have a much more open line of communication with Roger now,” Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank told Peter King of “At every owners’ meeting now, we’re going to have an owners-only session, and then an owners session with Roger, with everyone else out of the room. The owners asked for that contact, and it’s a reasonable thing to ask."


Not exactly the first word that comes to mind when discussing Goodell's salary, but this is where some perspective is needed. The NFL is a business that generates billions upon billions of dollars. Goodell functions as its chief operating officer.

"His salary will probably pale next to some of the technology giants that are out there and what they make annually," Burton said. "I think there are even small Fortune 500 companies where the CEO is making tens of millions of dollars annually. And you get into a whole other issue as to whether or not CEOs are overpaid, but CEOs are paid what they're paid because that's what the market will bear.

"Thirty-two NFL owners are actually very much aware of the fact that they, themselves, have been paid in the past extraordinarily well for being the CEO of an organization. So the salary may look high to a lot of people, because they think, 'Ah, it's just sport,' but sport has become a massive business. So rewarding him to make these 32 owners wealthier -- because his sole job is to make these guys wealthier -- they're saying, 'You've done a great job with that in the past and we're going to pay you some extra money to make sure you do a great job in the future.'"

Declining TV ratings remain a very real problem. Player protests might have diminished, but they haven't disappeared. Head injuries remain a threat to the game's long-term viability, because of continued lawsuits from former players and their families and a steady decrease of participation in youth football.

Those and other nasty storm clouds, not the least of which is the likelihood of highly contentious labor negotiations that are expected to lead to a lockout and/or work-stoppage, are on the horizon.

Perhaps NFL owners could have allowed themselves to have been swept up by the volatility of recent years and looked for a replacement, as some in the media speculated would be the case. But Andrew Brandt, a former vice president of player finance and general counsel of the Green Bay Packers and a current sports business analyst, never thought Goodell was in any danger of losing his job.

"And I don't even think even the most vocal critic, like Jerry Jones, was advocating for that," Brandt said by phone. "So it did seem odd that some were kind of extrapolating that and people even calling too make future commissioner lists. I was flattered some guy asked me if I would be interested in the job."

However, he's as quick as anyone to acknowledge that owners would have been hard-pressed to find someone better qualified than Goodell to be commissioner.

Burton wholeheartedly agrees.

"There are very, very, very few people on the planet who could step in and kind of do what Roger does, and I don't say that necessarily as a fan of Roger. I say it as statement of what I probably believe to be objective observation," Burton said. "He has spent his entire career in the NFL. There are very few people out there who have done that. He has served these owners now for more than a decade. He has been through collective bargaining agreements, he has been through TV negotiations. He knows the league intuitively in ways that an outsider couldn't.

"The questions owners are asking themselves are, 'What if kids all over America stop playing football? Will that mean that our supply chain is going to be diminished because more kids are going to take up soccer? What's going to happen if people stop watching TV? Does that mean I'm going to lose money or we're going to get less money in broadcast contracts? What if there's more linkage in playing football and brain injury?'

"You don't need a lockout or a strike on top of concussion litigation, on top of broadcast negotiations with somebody new who's trying to figure out who the owners are and who's influential and who's not, who's smart and who's capable; with somebody who can't run all of these committees that the NFL owners are a part of because they're learning the committee for the first time. It just would be a really bad time to switch your leadership."

Still, for all of the millions he has received and for the potential for many more to come his way, Goodell, in some ways, finds himself in a bit of a lose-lose situation.

The disciplinary measures he has taken with Elliott, Tom Brady and other players will never make him popular with some, and perhaps even most, of the owners. And the image owners prefer that he projects will never make him popular with the vast majority of fans.

"It's corporate, it's guarded, it's unrevealing in his comments," Brandt said. "And it's the guy that takes the hits so the owners don't have to."

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