Something has been missing from the NFL’s great comeback season of 2018: Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Goodell has always been a magnet for attention during his 13 seasons as commissioner, never more so than in the troubled 2017 season, when the NFL’s place at the center of U.S. culture was thrust into tumult. President Trump regularly skewered the country’s richest sports league for allowing player protests during the national anthem. Ratings, for the second straight season, were down. At the center of it all was Goodell, whose lucrative contract extension became fodder for a nasty public battle among team owners.
As this year’s Super Bowl between the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots arrives, everything has changed. Ratings shot back up—even more so in the playoffs—quieting concerns about the league’s future. Exciting play on the field produced new stars and captivated fans.
And Goodell, so frequently at the center of attention and controversy in the past, has conspicuously vanished.
It isn’t an accident that the rise of stars like Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes coincides with Goodell’s disappearance. As executives around the NFL looked last year to address their struggles, they knew they had to turn the attention away from themselves.
“The fans really don’t care about the noise and our situation, or the different tension points within the management,” said Robert Kraft, the Patriots owner. “They’re there to focus on the game.”
The owners talked specifically about getting out of the game’s way. “We were having too many stories that were unrelated to the game,” said one team executive, who asked not to be identified. “That part was something that was discussed.”
Goodell’s diminished visibility has been stark. He has rarely spoken publicly, with an exception here during his annual news conference at the Super Bowl. He pocket vetoed a short-lived new national anthem policy. He swiftly, but quietly, acted when video surfaced of a star player attacking a woman. He remained mum for over a week in the face of howls over the blown call in the NFC Championship between the Saints and Rams.
The results this season suggest that more football and less Goodell is good for the NFL.
This Super Bowl will be the capstone on what has in many respects been a banner season for the league. Ratings rose by 5% during the regular season. They’re up by 9% during the playoffs.
NFL executives point to the quality of play on the field as the driving factor. A league that spent years coping with high-profile injuries and a dearth of up-and-coming talent instead enjoyed seeing its best players stay on the field and the emergence of a pack of young stars.
Rule changes helped both keep players safe and produced a more exciting product. Scoring rose significantly, and there were more close games than ever—73 games finished within three points, the most in NFL history.
“The season has really been driven by all the competitiveness, all these great players,” said Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s chief business and media officer. “That’s translating to: People are watching more.”
While scintillating play returned to the field, the league did everything within its power to shift attention away from its issues that didn’t have to do with football. League executives view this turn as a positive.
Last year’s imbroglio over Goodell’s contract extension, a deal that was later finalized, was an ugly moment as owners publicly battled over tense issues and the commissioner’s compensation. The barbs from Trump were an unprecedented challenge for a league as it faced direct and scathing attacks from the president.
This year, instead of following that, fans tuned into Jared Goff and Tom Brady, the two quarterbacks in the Super Bowl, or the nascent rookie quarterbacks that turned prime-time games, like the Jets and Browns on a Thursday night, into major hits.
“They want to see football. They want to see drama. They want to see on-field heroics. And that’s what people want. And last year they got too much of things they didn’t want,” said Steve Cannon, the Atlanta Falcons CEO. “We said, ‘We just need to get back to football.’”
“Whether [Goodell] is visible or not, I think the league’s in a really good place right now,” said Al Guido, the San Francisco 49ers president.
It wasn’t long ago that Goodell and the NFL handled things differently.
On Sept. 19, 2014, the league staged a major news conference amid a firestorm. The league had suspended Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice for two games when he was charged with aggravated assault for striking his then-fiancée. When a video of the attack emerged, it was unanimous that the punitive action was too light. Cornered, and pushed to issuing a stricter punishment, Goodell publicly conceded that the situation had been mishandled by the league.
This year, the league was faced with a similarly troubling incident. This time, a disturbing video surfaced of Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt appearing to attack a woman. This time, the league’s response was both swifter and quieter. Goodell placed Hunt on the commissioner’s exempt list, which removes a player from practices and games, and the Chiefs cut him. Instead of a high-profile spectacle to address the issue, the NFL simply issued a brief statement late on a Friday night.
This was part of a growing emphasis on attempting to subdue, rather than inflame, controversy. Last March, for example, the NFL’s owners voted to implement a new policy about player protests during the national anthem—one that would force players to stand and “show respect” or otherwise remain in the locker room. The players and their representatives, who said they weren’t consulted on the policy, were livid and threatened legal action. The contentious issue looked like it would rage into its third season.
Then, before a game was ever played under the new policy, the NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed to put the new policy on hold as they discussed potential solutions. No new policy ever came out of it. The solution was silence.
The efforts largely worked. Although a handful of players continued to kneel during the anthem to protest social injustices and racial inequality, it became less of a lightning rod for the league. The firestorm surrounding Hunt did not drag on the way it did with Rice.
“We had a bunch of things going on last year. We had the underlying media environment that was changing coupled with the flag controversy, a tweeting commander in chief,” Cannon said. “All of those together we know had an impact.”
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SOURCE: Wall Street Journal, by Andrew Beaton