By many measures, the last several years have been disastrous for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The league’s handling of the concussion crisis took plenty of fire, eventually leading to a $765 million lawsuit settlement that was later uncapped and boosted (but still is facing appeals). Their handling of the Ray Rice incident and the ongoing controversy over their domestic violence policies was arguably even worse, and implicated Goodell personally even more, and this summer’s Deflategate saga (and Tom Brady’s recent court victory over Goodell and the league in particular) has made Goodell look especially bad, to the point where even South Park is lampooning him.
In most other businesses, having this many scandals attached to the chief executive would probably lead to their firing and mean the company was in a significant slump.
In the NFL, though, ratings are better than ever, producing an overall record for Week 1 average viewership.
Very few other businesses in the real world could operate in this manner. Imagine a Fortune 500 CEO getting every single major decision of his or her tenure wrong. The company would be sent into a tailspin, stock prices would tumble, and the business would be far worse off. Not so in the NFL. With its commissioner being maybe the most hated man in sports now and continuing to strike out in the courts, business has somehow never been better.
Given that the business of the NFL is business, that means Goodell’s job is likely safe—at least for the time being. The key question, though, is why those ratings are remaining so strong in the face of the countless negative headlines about the NFL in general and Goodell in particular. Is professional football such an unstoppable behemoth that it’s going to grow despite Goodell’s ineptitude? Or, is there perhaps a case to be made that Goodell is an effective “fall guy” for the league, or maybe even a wrestling heel who helps grow the business by being the figure fans love to hate?
The professional wrestling example may be the most far-fetched here, but at the very least, it’s an instructive one to consider with regards to Goodell. Storylines have long been a crucial part of wrestling’s success and popularity, and many of the most effective storylines aren’t about the heroes, or “faces,” but rather the villains, or “heels.” Many sports have seen this too, with teams like the 1980s Raiders and the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons embracing the villain persona and gaining huge recognition as a result. Popular culture beyond sports has some similar aspects as well; consider the popularity of Darth Vader, Ernst Blofeld, or the Joker. That’s not to say that Goodell is setting himself up for defeat in cases like the Rice or Brady ones, as that wouldn’t seem to make too much sense for him or the league, but it does seem at least possible that he realizes he’s seen as having this bad-guy persona and that he sees it can have some benefits. Going back to wrestling, keep in mind that WWF/WWE head honcho Vince McMahon created his own heel character to drive storylines forward, and that worked out pretty well; lots of the fans who booed and rooted against “Mr. McMahon” continued to consume his product, perhaps even more fervently than before.
The heel analysis is perhaps most true on the discipline front, where Goodell has often been under fire lately. His overreaching approach to discipline may allow the NFL to create the perception it’s taking a hard line and “protecting the integrity of the game,” and while that may cause plenty of fans to get mad at Goodell (especially those in Boston at the moment), it doesn’t necessarily turn those fans off the game. In fact, it may help make them even more rabid; there’s nothing like the “us against the world” mentality, which has caused the reigning Super Bowl champions to become an underdog cause célèbre. Goodell’s missteps also help divert anger about what’s actually happened; everyone outraged at how he and the NFL handled the Rice and Brady incidents now is less focused on what those players actually did. This is particularly true with Deflategate; it’s a scandal that, at times at least, has had the potential to cast aspersions on the league’s competitive integrity and the recent decade of success Brady and the Patriots have found (especially given the recent Outside The Lines report), but those questions and implications have largely been overlooked in the wake of the commissioner’s stumblings, to the degree that Brady and possible accomplices like “The Deflator” have turned into unlikely heroes in some quarters. If Goodell’s the bad guy, anyone aligned against him can’t be bad, right?
In this way, Goodell may be a convenient fall guy for the league; he’s the public face of the NFL, and thus the focus of much of the criticism directed at it, but that criticism rarely makes it down to the level of individual teams or owners. By contrast, an aw-shucks, easily-admirable commissioner might leave the impression that he’s doing his best to fix things, but is hamstrung by the league’s owners, making them look like the bad guys. The NFL isn’t the only league where the commissioner’s often criticized; consider that Gary Bettman’s been leading the NHL since 1993 and has been roundly blasted for most of that time and that Bud Selig and David Stern took plenty of heat over their tenures with MLB and the NBA. Having a commissioner who can take the public’s ire may just be a useful thing for a professional sports league.
Another theory is that Goodell isn’t intentionally seeking this criticism, but that the criticism itself helps boost the league’s audience. Trainwrecks can make for compelling viewing (that was the only reason to turn into the Chris Berman-Trent Dilfer Monday Night Football broadcast this week), and the NFL’s actions over the last few years have looked like significant pileups. This falls under the “any publicity is good publicity” theory, and while there are significant reasons for doubting that line of logic in general, it may have some application to sports. Yes, Deflategate may have been one of the most annoying sports stories ever, but it kept the NFL even more firmly in the public mind during the summer than usual. The NFL’s missteps are hard to look away from, and the soap opera quality of its recent storylines may put the league even more on the national radar.
Beyond that, it’s possible that Goodell’s actions do actually have a negative impact on the league, but that the NFL is just such an unstoppable leviathan that it’s going to continue to grow anyway. There may well be people reducing or eliminating their NFL support or viewing habits as a result of Goodell’s actions, but under this theory, they’re replaced by an always-ready group of eager new fans. With these assumptions, the NFL might actually do even better with another less-controversial commissioner, but no commissioner’s missteps can be enough to drag the league down.
Which theory’s correct? From this corner, each has some merits, and the most likely answer is a combination of all of them. The NFL is such a juggernaut at this point that it’s hard to see any particular commissioner having a massive impact on its popularity, for better or for worse. Still, there’s also something to Goodell playing the bad guy (whether intentionally or unintentionally), giving the league a great villain and soaking up criticism that might otherwise hit individual teams, players or owners. There’s also an argument to be made that some are watching the NFL because, not in spite of, its trainwreck status at this point. Regardless of how much influence each of these factors actually plays, it seems that the owners are just fine with Goodell continuing as commissioner for now. If the ratings remain strong and the criticism stays focused on Goodell rather than teams or owners, his controversial tenure may be seen by them as a feature, not a bug.