Roger Goodell at 10 years: Time to put 'players first'

Goodell isn't going anywhere (0:53)

Ben Volin views Roger Goodell's victories in Deflategate and the Adrian Peterson lawsuit as evidence Goodell will remain the one in charge for the NFL. (0:53)

Roger Goodell spent his first 10 years as NFL commissioner protecting his cherished shield. For his own sake, if nothing else, he should spend the next 10 years protecting the men who make that $13 billion shield worth something.

Without the players the NFL is nothing, and it doesn't matter that the owners are billionaires and that Goodell would be the highest-paid player in his own league -- by far. Fans have made pro football the most consumable sports product in the land because they love watching skilled athletes perform in an inherently dangerous game. They have never cared about the jowly rich guys eating crab cakes in their climate-controlled suites, and they never will.

Sunday night, the NFL endured great humiliation by canceling the Hall of Fame game between Green Bay and Indianapolis because of field conditions that would've scared off Lombardi's Packers. The good news is the league did the right thing in thinking about player safety first, saving face (and money) second.

Now Goodell can help himself by consistently helping his most valuable commodity. Against the odds, if he can prove to players, fans and media that he genuinely cares more about the players' health -- specifically the health of their brains -- than he does the bottom line, he can repair some of the self-inflicted damage done to his office. A Public Policy Poll of fans released in February showed Goodell with a 28 percent approval rating, the equivalent of being down three touchdowns. If the commissioner can make the NFL a safer place over the balance of his stay, he can at least make the final score respectable.

"I don't think his defining legacy issue will be [players'] anger management and domestic violence, which in some ways has driven Roger into the abyss," said Michael Huyghue, an agent and former Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars executive who has known Goodell for 25 years. "It's player safety. That's the issue that affects families across the country, from mothers looking at their 10-year-old sons who want to play football to players who have put 20 years into the NFL and want to know that their long-term health care will be solid. I think Roger appreciates the fact that this is an important place where he can make his mark."

Does he really? On Monday, his 10th anniversary as commissioner, it's a question worth asking. Five months after ESPN's "Outside the Lines" reported the NFL had abandoned a commitment to a National Institutes of Health study on the connection between football and brain disease, a Congressional report in May said the league had pressured the NIH to reassign the $16 million project to someone other than the appointed Boston University researcher, Robert Stern, who had been a league critic. The NFL immediately rejected the report, and last week New York Giants owner John Mara, chairman of the league's Management Council Executive Committee, told ESPN.com the allegation of pressure on the NIH "was completely false. There was no pressure put on anyone. We all wanted independent research from the beginning."

Either way, Goodell didn't help his cause when asked at the last Super Bowl how he could encourage children to take up the sport when some high school players were dying on the field. He said that he wouldn't surrender a single day of the nine years of organized football he played through high school, and that if he had a son he'd love for him to experience the life values the game teaches. Goodell should've stopped there. He didn't.

"There is risk in life," the commissioner said. "There is risk in sitting on the couch."

Even some of Goodell's most loyal surrogates winced over that line. In Wading River, New York, the parents of one high school football player and honor student killed by a hit to the head in a 2014 game were equally saddened and enraged that the commissioner could be so insensitive. "I would love to introduce Roger Goodell to my son Thomas, but I can't because he died in a football game," the boy's mother, Kelli Cutinella, later told ESPN.com. "He didn't die sitting on the couch. My son was an amazing person, and he loved a sport that [Goodell] is the sole leader of. How do you sit there and say something like that?"

Cutinella and her husband Frank remain involved in football because they want to improve it, not eliminate it. Their son Kevin is scheduled to be the starting quarterback this fall on the Shoreham-Wading River High School field named for his late brother. Frank had successfully lobbied Long Island and New York State officials to adopt new safety standards, and he's hoping to speak before a national group of athletic administrators in Nashville in December.

"Roger Goodell doesn't know the grief of losing a son who died wearing his game jersey in a sport I introduced him to," Frank Cutinella said. "They keep throwing millions into research, and you don't need any more research. The science is already there. All I want Goodell to say is, 'We have a problem, and I'm going to fix it.'"

But what if fixing it threatens the very foundation of the sport? What if, deep down, the NFL's elders believe that what's good for the people playing football doesn't match up with the interests of those owning football teams?

"Roger Goodell wants to grow the game and make it really big; there's no denying that's his biggest goal," said Eric Winston, Cincinnati Bengals tackle and president of the NFL Players Association. "In the end maybe that's what he was hired to do. Maybe he only needs to make 32 guys happy."

As one of those 32 guys, Mara swears the commissioner has consistently stated to senior league officials his desire to protect the players. In fact, the Giants owner said, Goodell cares more about reducing concussions and determining why so many players are dying with the degenerative brain disease known as CTE than any other issue facing the league.

"And if that wasn't true," Mara said, "I wouldn't want him as commissioner. If I didn't feel that was Roger's goal and primary focus, I'd lead the uprising to get him out of there."

It's a tough job being commissioner of a major team sport, tougher when the man or woman in office lacks charisma and an ability to work a room. If public speaking isn't a weakness for Roger Goodell, it isn't a strength, either. Not everyone can be Pete Rozelle or David Stern.

The "couch" comment at the Super Bowl was an unforced error, and a costly one in the immediate wake of the news that Oakland Raiders great Ken Stabler had CTE at the time of his death. "It's not necessarily how I would've answered the question," Mara said, "but Roger is constantly in the spotlight answering questions on a variety of topics. He wasn't attempting to trivialize the risks associated with football."

This was right around the time when Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson said he wouldn't let his grandson play the game, that he was happy his son failed a physical and lost his chance to play major college football, and that he knew "the league wants me to go somewhere, sit down and shut the f--- up about this." The game was under siege, again, on Goodell's watch. Though he has presided over a period of great financial prosperity, and made his goal of a $25 billion industry by 2027 a realistic proposition, Goodell seems to have staggered from one ungodly mess to another.

Beyond concussions and CTE, there was Spygate, Bountygate, Deflategate, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy. The commissioner had collectively bargained for himself absolute authority over player discipline, and he buckled under the weight of it all. Once an attorney who worked for the NFLPA and then the NFL Management Council, Huyghue would send notes to Goodell that read, jokingly, "There you go again, screwing up."

Huyghue concedes that his friend could be a bit lighter on his feet when it comes to crisis management. "That part is a little difficult for him," Huyghue said. "Moving people requires a little sugar along the way, and maybe for Roger some aspect of the political side of it would be beneficial, because perception does become reality at some point."

And what, exactly, is the behind-the-scenes reality of Roger Goodell, 57-year-old commissioner of America's game? "I do think when he's doing interviews or in the public, he may come across in some people's opinion as arrogant," Mara said. "I can understand when looking at an interview why some people would come to that conclusion, but that's just not the way Roger is in real life. There's a lot of resentment toward him over the money he makes, but a commissioner has to make tough decisions in very tough circumstances, and they're not always popular. He always tries to do the right thing for the game, especially when it comes to player safety."

One source close to the league's player safety advisory panel said Goodell is an "intense" presence on conference calls, encouraging members to offer thoughts on rules and philosophy independent of any potential consequence to the NFL's popularity or pocketbook. When Seahawks coach Pete Carroll put together an instructional video on proper tackling, the source said, the commissioner pushed harder than anyone for the tape to be sent to youth coaches across the country.

"Roger Goodell wants to grow the game and make it really big; there's no denying that's his biggest goal. In the end maybe that's what he was hired to do. Maybe he only needs to make 32 guys happy." Eric Winston, president of the Players Association, on Goodell.

Goodell showed genuine care for his players, Huyghue said, when he led a team of NFL executives on a recent trip to the Virtual Human Interaction Lab of Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson, whose exercises allow participants to experience the biases confronted by someone of a different race, gender and age. Bailenson had hosted other prominent business leaders with the likes of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and he was struck by Goodell's level of interest in the empathy training. "The impression I got," Bailenson said, "was here was a person running a massive organization truly looking for ways to improve the culture of that organization, with no ulterior motive."

Huyghue organized the visit that was designed, in part, to help the NFL better understand the challenges of today's young athlete, particularly the young African-American athlete. He came away believing the virtual training had a positive impact on Goodell.

"I think the public perception of Roger is wholly misplaced," Huyghue said. "Fans are always going to side with the player, and I think people jumped on the bandwagon of him being a disciplinarian. Roger's not a lawyer by trade, and his inherent nature is not to punish people.

"I've had very frank race-related conversations with him about white coaches being selected over black coaches, and how the pipeline leading to coordinator positions is tilted, and he's taken it to heart. I know Roger cares a lot about all these issues, and he wants to improve relationships in the league. But I think he would rather people dislike him and do the right thing than people like him and do the popular thing. I don't know if he'll ever really convince the public of the person he really is."

It's lonely at the top of America's sporting pastime. Ben Utecht, Super Bowl-winning tight end with the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, has a firm grasp on the commissioner's most pressing dilemma.

"Roger Goodell is getting paid an awful lot of money by an incredibly powerful organization to make sure the money keeps coming in," Utecht said, "and at the end of the day that's what makes the NFL tick. So to balance that with player safety and health, when you have that kind of pressure on you, must be very difficult."

Utecht played five years in the NFL and wishes he could've played a lot longer. His fifth documented concussion ended his career in 2009, at age 28, and five years later he was sitting before a Senate committee testifying about the day he woke up face-down on the Cincinnati Bengals' training camp field, about to be strapped to a board and loaded into an ambulance. He told the committee that he was suffering from memory loss, that he couldn't remember attending his good friend's wedding (never mind singing in it), and that he has dealt with behavioral changes compelling his 5-year-old daughter to tell the family doctor she was afraid of her dad.

"If I'm Roger Goodell, over the next 10 years I want to make a mark. I want to make the NFL a company that puts players' health above money. I think that elevates football, and you create the kind of integrity where you're going to do nothing but make people respect the shield more than they ever have. The only chance a player has to be successful after football is over is having a healthy brain. If Roger takes the reins on this, he's going to see a change in how people perceive him and his legacy." Former NFL player Ben Utecht on Goodell.

While wearing his Super Bowl ring, Utecht told the Senate committee he hopes he never loses his memories of playing with Peyton Manning, and for Tony Dungy, in that signature victory over Chicago.

Now Utecht is a spokesman for the American Academy of Neurology and the American Brain Foundation, a professional singer, and the author of "Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away," due out later this month. Utecht wrote a love letter to his wife and daughters in the form of a song ("You Will Always Be My Girls") and did a music video that went viral and inspired the book, which he doesn't describe as anti-football.

"I've always had a pro-brain, pro-game message," Utecht said. "I still love football." He wrote the book as a memoir for his family, he said, in case his memory loss at 35 "eventually manifests the same way in my 50s as it did for Jim McMahon and a long list of other players." Utecht knows he has had more than the five concussions that were diagnosed. He remembers waking up one night at 3 a.m., his body and bed sheets drenched in sweat, telling his wife he was sure he'd suffered another concussion that day in practice.

"She asked me what I was going to do about it, and I said, 'Nothing,'" Utecht recalled. "The pressure on players to be on the field is so intense, and honestly as players we want to be on the field. We feel we are letting our teammates down, even letting our community down. It's tough to balance all those things, and we didn't have the knowledge six years ago that we have today."

So what now?

"If I'm Roger Goodell," Utecht said, "over the next 10 years I want to make a mark. I want to make the NFL a company that puts players' health above money. I think that elevates football, and you create the kind of integrity where you're going to do nothing but make people respect the shield more than they ever have. The only chance a player has to be successful after football is over is having a healthy brain. If Roger takes the reins on this, he's going to see a change in how people perceive him and his legacy."

Of course, Goodell and his supporters believe he has already established his commitment to player health and safety with a series of rules and penalties designed to dramatically reduce dangerous hits, and with stricter concussion protocols that now include fines and the potential loss of draft picks for teams that don't follow them. Meanwhile, Chris Nowinski, executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, sees it differently.

"That's already been in place with rugby teams in Australia," Nowinski said of the fines. "Why wait until 2016? The reality is that NFL players are safer than they were, but you have to appreciate that the players association has pushed for most of these changes against the will of the NFL. ... Reading the congressional report a few months ago was a bit of a last straw to me in terms of holding out hope for the NFL to change its ways."

Nowinski also cited a New York Times report that revealed the league-funded Heads Up Football program, promoted to youth leagues as a playbook for proper tackling and blocking techniques, did not reduce concussions and injuries despite the NFL's claims to the contrary. He said a UMass-Lowell poll that showed 78 percent of respondents finding it inappropriate for kids to play tackle football before age 14 proved the public hasn't been fooled.

"The game of football is at a crossroads," Nowinski said. "The lack of respect for CTE and the hypothesis for how this is starting is leading to wrong policy decisions for NFL players before they get to the NFL. The best way to keep NFL players from getting CTE is to shorten the length of their overall careers. ...This push to recruit our 5-year-old boys into football is such a dramatic mistake it's almost impossible to overstate it.

"Football is the only sport where you can repeatedly hit a child in the head before he turns 11. The NFL needs to be investing in seven-on-seven and flag football, and cutting off the pipeline to tackling."

Winston has been saying much of the same for years -- that it makes no sense for developing young brains to be subjected to hundreds of unnecessary hits. "It's absolutely wacky that we think a 9-year-old should play football exactly how adults play it," Winston said. "In basketball we have 8-foot hoops, a smaller court, and we don't call traveling. In baseball there are no leadoffs, a shorter mound, we have tees, machines that pitch, a pitch count for arms, and you gradually work into things like leadoffs, steals, bigger fields.

"Football is the only sport that believes if you don't start hitting people at age 9, somehow kids won't learn how to tackle."

On any given Sunday, the hits can add up to the kind of brain injury that ultimately destroys post-career lives. Players suffered 271 concussions in the 2015 regular season and preseason, an alarming spike of nearly 32 percent compared to the same time frame from 2014. Winston hears league executives talk about measures to protect players and the long-term health of their bodies and brains in one breath, then push for 18-game regular seasons and the preservation of "Thursday Night Football" in another.

"Their actions have to match the rhetoric," he said. "What happened with the NIH, those things give players reason to worry tremendously. ... We don't want a study tailored to make sure we find a certain end. We are always going to follow the numbers and the science and tell players the truth."

Way back when, baseball commissioner Fay Vincent had a problem: He was well-liked by some constituents, but not by the most important one, the owners, who forced him out in September 1992.

Vincent had his own Goodell-ian battles with Pete Rose (as Bart Giamatti's lieutenant) and George Steinbrenner, but it was his inability to build a bridge to ownership that hurt him. The barons of baseball wanted to break the union, Vincent tried to talk them out of it, and they fired him for his trouble after only three years in office.

Vincent still grades himself harshly. "I failed," he said. "Nobody wants to be a failed commissioner." He is more generous in his assessment of Goodell.

"I can tell you from Day 1, from my very first conversation with Roger during the interview process before we selected him as commissioner, player safety was his No. 1 goal. Every rule change we've enacted came not only with his blessing, but a lot of times with him twisting the owners' arms and convincing them it was the right thing to do." New York Giants owner John Mara on Goodell.

"Roger has been much more successful than I certainly was in maintaining the support of the owners," Vincent said. "They're the ones who keep you in the job. But if you try to please the owners too much, you can lose your own sense of balance and perspective."

The son of an NFL referee and former Yale captain, Vincent was an accomplished football player at Williams College before a four-story fall off a dormitory roof left him with severe leg and spinal injuries and, well, something else: "I had a broken heart that I couldn't play football anymore," he said.

So Vincent is a big fan of the game. "And there's no question Roger has kept it riding high," he said. "He's made mistakes and admitted them, but nobody can question that professional football is the principal sport in this country, and that Roger deserves a lot of credit for that. He just had a huge victory in the [Tom] Brady case in the federal Court of Appeals. Even if the opinion of the lower court was that Roger wasn't exactly sensitive to Brady's Constitutional rights, they said they were going to back the commissioner. Now he can basically do whatever he wants."

Goodell won his appeal in the Adrian Peterson case, too, reaffirming his power once again. Yet Vincent knows the NFL won't make the CTE crisis go away in a courtroom, or even in the $1 billion concussion settlement with former players. He thinks the phrase "existential threat" is overused, but that it definitely applies here, with the sport's elders struggling to deal with the science that says football is hazardous to your brain's health.

Vincent believes some high schools and small colleges like Williams will drop football "when the lawyers start suing over concussions." He called the story of the NFL's bailout on the NIH project "disgraceful," and said of the league's position on brain trauma and disease: "It would be a big mistake for Roger not to consider this a serious problem."

Bart Starr's wife, Cherry, has a hard time reading stinging critiques of the NFL commissioner's work. She says Goodell has been a friend for many years, but that he has been particularly kind ever since Bart suffered the seizures and strokes that robbed him of nearly his entire memory of his iconic Green Bay Packers career.

"When we returned to Lambeau Field last year," Cherry said, "I told Roger to stay home with his family. It was Thanksgiving night and yet he flew out there to be with us, and I know that meant the world to Bart."

Cherry strongly suspects football contributed to her husband's physical and mental conditions, but doesn't believe the commissioner has forgotten the broken men of Starr's generation. "I just think the criticism of Roger is so unjustified," she said.

Joe Lockhart, former White House press secretary, was hired to temper/quash/spin some of that criticism. But Goodell can start to turn the tide himself by throwing his full support behind a coast-to-coast ban on tackle football through eighth grade, by dropping the idea of an 18-game season, by wiping out Thursday night football and all its inviting revenue sources for good (battered Sunday bodies just aren't ready to be hit again four days later), and by pledging that his league will never, ever interfere with agenda-free research into the relationship between football and brain disease.

League spokesman Brian McCarthy didn't respond to a request seeking comment from Goodell on his commitment to player health and safety. So Mara spoke for a commissioner whose contract expires after the 2018 season, a commissioner who should embrace one mandate above all for however long he stays in office.

"I can tell you from Day 1," Mara said, "from my very first conversation with Roger during the interview process before we selected him as commissioner, player safety was his No. 1 goal. Every rule change we've enacted came not only with his blessing, but a lot of times with him twisting the owners' arms and convincing them it was the right thing to do.

"If you ask Roger what he'd want his legacy to be when his time as commissioner ends, the first thing he'd say is that he made the game safer."

If true, over the next 10 years we can fully expect Roger Goodell to talk a lot less about his shield, and a lot more about the men who don't deserve to be carried out on it.