The NFL Needs A Different Kind Of Commissioner

Super Bowl Week 2011 will be less about the on-field contest between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers and more about the off-field press conferences of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith.

With the NFL-NFLPA collective bargaining agreement set to expire not long after the Super Bowl, public attention will be at an all-time high for the ongoing war of words in the press between the representatives of ownership and labour.

In one sense, both men have already failed in their task simply by allowing things to reach this point. Although I’ve heard many commenters state there is an inevitability to all high-stakes negotiations — i.e., they always wait until the last minute — it’s ridiculous to passively accept that two well-compensated executives (in Goodell’s case, a reported salary of over $10 million) should spent months peacocking for the press before sitting down to serious negotiations. And if you are going to peacock, at least come to the show with a bird of sufficient plumage: Goodell in particular seems to be easily plucked.

The problem may come from Goodell’s background. He’s a career NFLer, working his way up from intern to chief operating officer under his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue. There’s nothing inherently suspect about working one’s way up the chain of command. But it is noteworthy that Goodell never really worked on the football side of the NFL. His expertise comes purely from the bureaucratic side — and that is inherently suspicious.

The first NFL officer to hold the title of commissioner was Elmer Layden, one of the famed “Four Horsemen” of Notre Dame who was serving as his alma mater’s athletic director and head coach before leaving to oversee the NFL. Layden’s successor, Bert Bell, was the owner-coach of two different NFL franchises. Pete Rozelle was an experienced marketing executive who turned around the Los Angeles Rams as its general manager.

When Rozelle retired, things started to change. The NFL owners bypassed Jim Finks, a longtime general manager who was the early favourite to succeed Rozelle, in favour of Paul Tagliabue, the league’s outside legal counsel, who had no hands-on football experience. Tagliabue certainly brought certain strengths to the job. His legal and negotiating expertise helped the league avoid the labour strikes and litigation unrest that clouded the last decade of Rozelle’s tenure. But the NFL “boom” of the 1990s and early 2000s was not, however, a result of any brilliant leadership by Tagliabue; rather it reflected the NFL’s strength as a multimedia product, a fete that was driven by the rise and growth of Fox and ESPN, not to mention a little thing called the Internet.

Growth often leads to complacency. When Tagliabue retired the NFL conducted a token search before promoting his longtime lieutenant, Goodell, to the top job. Goodell lacked either the direct football experience of the pre-Tagliabue commissioners or the substantial legal career of Tagliabue himself. He simply rose through the ranks, acquiring titles along the way. This is reflected in his management style, which resembles that of a Federal Trade Commission chairman more than a Fortune 500 CEO. As the Klingons would say, Goodell is “a swaggering, overbearing, tin-plated, dictator with delusions of godhood.” Perhaps more importantly, he has a tin ear towards public relations, which has played no small role in exacerbating the present labour situation.

The problem, however, is not Goodell so much as what he represents — the NFL’s mutation into a quasi-governmental bureaucracy. The job of the “commissioner” is inherently vague and subject to the whims of each occupant. He is charged with both mediating disputes within the league and imposing his own standards of what is in the “best” interests of the league. There’s an inherent conflict.

One way to relieve this tension would be to reorganize the commissioner’s office as a “head of state” position while assigning day-to-day managerial powers to a CEO or executive director. Like a British monarch — or perhaps the Governor General of Canada would be a better analogy — the commissioner’s role could be “to be consulted, encourage, and warn,” but not to take direct action. The commissioner would merely be a stopgap to help prevent intra-league or league-player disputes from reaching critical mass.

Ideally, such a commissioner would enjoy broad support from the entire football community (players, press, owners, and fans) and possess a strong football background — in other words, everything Roger Goodell is not. Nor should it be some out-of-work politician looking for easy money. The first name I thought of, simply because he’s in the news and out of work, is former Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher. As a former player, assistant coach, head coach, and longtime co-chair of the NFL’s competition committee, he would command instant respect from all parts of the football world. But there are no doubt a dozen other people who could fill the role equally well.

Nobody expects the NFL owners to make such a radical change to their internal operations. Yet it’s just as much in their interest as anyone’s to dump Goodell and rethink the entire concept of what the “commissioner” should be. Ultimately Goodell is torn between protecting the owners, his employers, and craving public and press approval. The owners surely don’t need a showboating bureaucrat at a salary of over $10 million annually. I can’t imagine any owner credits Goodell with the league’s enormous fortunes. At best he’s an expensive ornament.

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