NEW YORK (BP)–Roger Goodell, the eighth commissioner in the National Football League’s 89-year history, is just completing his third year as the top executive in America’s most popular professional sport.
But nobody has moved faster to make bold decisions to raise the conduct bar on player behavior and punish those who fall short. He has called for higher standards among fans who attend the games and banned alcohol in NFL locker rooms and all team meetings. The NFL is not problem-free in this area, but Goodell has sent a clear signal that his league will not tolerate continued misbehavior by players on or off the field or by fans in the stands.
Goodell also has been responsive to concerns about how the league treats people of faith. In 2008, Goodell prevented churches from showing Super Bowl XLII to large gatherings but permitted such for-profit enterprises as restaurants and sports bars (venues that potentially would be selling Anheuser-Busch or other products featured in Super Bowl ads). However, he reversed himself and earlier this year lifted those restrictions on congregations in a letter to Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah, who had intervened on behalf of the public’s interests.
A 25-year employee of the league based in New York City, Goodell began working with the NFL in 1982 as an administrative intern after a heavy letter-writing campaign shortly after graduating from Washington and Jefferson University with a degree in economics.
He left the league for one year in 1983, but returned in ’84 and has steadily worked his way up the company ladder, being named executive vice president and chief operating officer in 2001.
When his friend and mentor Paul Tagliabue announced his intention to retire in September 2006, Goodell was elected as his successor by the NFL owners on the fifth ballot in August 2006.
In April 2007, he instituted a league-wide Player Personal Conduct Policy, forcibly asserting that playing in the NFL was a conduct-driven privilege, not a talent-mandated right for all players, coaches and executives.
To further amplify his new policy, he suspended former Dallas cornerback Adam Jones for the entire 2007 season along with an indefinite suspension for the jailed quarterback Michael Vick. He also suspended Dallas defensive tackle Terry “Tank” Johnson and Cincinnati receiver Chris Henry eight games each, among the harshest penalties in recent league history.
In May ’07, Goodell banned alcohol from all NFL league functions, including bus and plane rides and team functions, applying the rule to all players, coaches, team executives and their guests on team property or business.
The son of a former U.S. senator from New York, Goodell lives in the New York City area with his wife and young twin daughters.
After several requests made through his office, Goodell agreed to a question-and-answer interview with questions from Baptist Press in advance of next week’s Super Bowl XLIII between the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers in Tampa, Fla.
BAPTIST PRESS: Are there some great things NFL players do in the community or with different groups that most fans overlook because other negative items get more publicity?
NFL COMMISSIONER ROGER GOODELL: I am proud of the many, many players who positively contribute in different ways to their communities. Every Tuesday during the season, on their one day off from game preparation, many NFL players take part in community activities, either with their teams or through their own foundations. From serving meals to the underprivileged to hosting youth football clinics, volunteering is a part of many players’ weekly routine. While these activities are sometimes overlooked by fans or the media, they mean a lot to each community. It is a core part of who we are as a league.
In fact, it was just announced that Matt Birk of the Minnesota Vikings, Brian Dawkins of the Philadelphia Eagles and Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals are the three finalists for this year’s Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. They represent the very best of the commitment of all of our players to community service.
BP: It seems like since taking over the job you have worked hard to uphold a high standard for everyone associated with the league. Is this a correct assumption? Why (or why not) is that important to you and the league?
GOODELL: It is important that all of us representing the NFL understand that it is a privilege, not a right, to be associated with this game and this league. We have a responsibility to our fans and our communities. We are all accountable. Our theme for conduct in general is simple: “Play by the rules.”
BP: Do you feel the league’s national (and worldwide) popularity is because a high standard is consistently upheld?
GOODELL: The NFL’s popularity first and foremost starts with the game on the field. The game is just tremendously exciting. And our fans love it for so many different reasons — whether it’s the strategy, the contact or the great athleticism. And we have to keep our focus on that. The standards in place are there to ensure that the game remains at the highest quality. The second issue is to make sure we’re sensitive to all 32 clubs, our fans and our business partners. Also, we look at technology and see how it can improve the game. We don’t rest on our laurels; we want to make sure we can continue the success of the NFL.
BP: Are NFL players role models to others or in the community?
GOODELL: Our players are role models and understand the responsibility they have publicly to our communities and the important role they play in them. We have 2,000 young men and almost every one of them is outstanding.
BP: What do you think it means to NFL fans, young and old, to see how players conduct themselves on and off the field?
GOODELL: It means a tremendous amount to fans to see how NFL players conduct themselves on and off the field. Players and teams represent their communities — from the way they play, the way they manage their image and the way they’re active in their community. Fans, young and old, look up to NFL players and that is why they are held to higher standards by the league and, most importantly, by themselves.
BP: Before the 2008 season, you unveiled a separate code of conduct for fans. Why did you feel this was important?
GOODELL: The goal was to make sure that every fan that attends an NFL game has a positive experience. We don’t want anyone to stay away because of a bad experience. The reality is that one individual can create an unfortunate experience for a number of people. So we have been focused on fan conduct and making sure that our fans can come to the stadium on game day and enjoy the experience.
BP: What type of feedback how you received from this new policy?
GOODELL: The reaction has been quite positive from our fans and we are making improvements. This is something that is going to happen over a long period of time, but we are making adjustments and making sure that people can come to our facilities and enjoy them.
BP: As a family man and father yourself, what does it mean to take a family to an NFL game without fearing trouble or problems?
GOODELL: Creating a positive experience for all fans who attend our games is important. The goal is — from the time somebody goes through the parking experience, through the gates, sitting in their seats, concessions, restrooms, throughout the whole experience — making sure that they feel safe, that they’re comfortable and that they can enjoy the game.
BP: Last year, an ESPN commentator, Mike Greenberg, whose show you have appeared on, spoke about going to a college basketball playoff game with his daughter and finding it refreshingly tame and problem-free because of the lack of alcohol sales. Has the league or individual teams considered having certain alcohol-free sections in NFL stadiums for this reason? Are there some teams that do this already?
GOODELL: These are team issues, so you would have to check with the teams.
BP: How did your early 2008 trip to visit U.S. troops in Afghanistan affect you in relation to football and sports and the role which they play?
GOODELL: What impressed me so much is of all the men and women we met at so many different bases, not a single one complained about anything — not their missions, not about how long they were there, nothing. It’s inspiring. We are so fortunate to have so many great people in service to our country. And I felt how meaningful and important the NFL is to these people.
BP: What does it mean to you to have started as an intern at the NFL office and to have risen to the office of commissioner?
GOODELL: I was fortunate to have worked for what I consider the two greatest commissioners in sports. They taught me the most important thing, which is that this isn’t about the commissioner. The game of football is about the players, the coaches, the fans. The game is the most important thing and we must always do what we can to make sure the game stays healthy, not only at the NFL level but also the college, high school and youth levels. That’s critically important for our long-term future. So taking some of those key lessons gave me an opportunity to understand how I wanted to do things so that we can continue to have the success we’ve had.
BP: What role, if any, does personal faith play for individual coaches and players in the NFL?
GOODELL: That’s a personal question better answered by the men themselves. But I know that for many players and coaches it’s an important aspect of their lives.
BP: Thanks for the time.
Art Stricklin is a Baptist Press sports correspondent who lives in Dallas. His coverage of Bowl week in Tampa, Fla., will begin Monday at www.bpnews.net and www.bpsports.net.