Sixty-one percent of NFL players recently surveyed said that they "disapproved of the job" NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has done overall, with "most focusing on the increased fines of players for dangerous hits on defenseless receivers and quarterbacks and the perception of the commissioner's investigation into the bounty matter," according to a sports section cover story by Mike Garafolo of USA TODAY. The poll of 300 players on active rosters or practice squads was "conducted from Dec. 19 to Jan. 12, with a margin of error of plus-minus 5%." Goodell's 39% approval rating came from "a number of respondents noting his role in making the game the most popular of U.S. sports, plus those who realize it's a thankless job, no matter who is in charge." Cardinals K Jay Feely said, "When you create a system where you're both the judge and the jury and you preside over it in that manner, it seems inherently unfair." Garafolo notes Goodell has "taken steps toward dispersing power." He appointed former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to "hear the second round of appeals in the bounty case." When Ravens S Ed Reed was suspended for a hit to a defenseless receiver in November, it was NFL VP/Football Operations Merton Hanks -- as "agreed upon in the CBA -- that decided the punishment." Cowboys QB Tony Romo said, "There are always going to be positives and negatives that go with it, but I know that Roger in his heart has the best interests of the league. ... If you're appeasing everybody, you might not be doing the job well." However, Chiefs DT Shaun Smith said that Goodell is "overstepping his bounds." He said, "I miss Paul Tagliabue. The league has changed." Seahawks FB Michael Robinson said that Goodell should "stop trying to turn the game into glorified two-hand touch." Robinson: "You talk about helmet-to-helmet collisions. I get about 18 to 25 a game; you're not going to be able to stop that" (USA TODAY, 1/28).
LONELY AT THE TOP: In DC, Rick Maese profiled Goodell and wrote as Goodell heads to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII, he finds the league "in a remarkable situation: Its condition depends almost entirely on the view of the observer." Goodell leads at a time when the game "can be described as both thriving and vulnerable." While professional football "pulls in television ratings and revenue that are the envy of other leagues, Goodell is constantly cleaning up messes and deflecting endless controversies, at least one of which threatens the sport’s future." The NFL emerged from its player lockout in '11 with "a deal that guaranteed 10 years of labor peace, only to find an obstacle course of peril: lawsuits from nearly 4,000 former players who say they suffered concussions, the suicide of retired linebacker Junior Seau, a murder-suicide committed by a member of the Kansas City Chiefs, waning participation numbers in youth leagues, an escalating debate about the health and safety of players, the lockout of NFL game officials and an alleged bounty system in New Orleans." In Goodell’s early years as commissioner, he was "cast as a no-nonsense sheriff, policing outlaws" such as Eagles QB Michael Vick and Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. Publicly, he was "mostly milquetoast, a handsome face who shook the hands of draft picks and kept the NFL on the tracks." But relations with players "began to strain during the bitter contract negotiations of the 2011 lockout and worsened as the Saints bounty scandal bubbled to the surface and players began to grouse about hefty fines for illegal hits." Goodell’s constituents "are many, though, and while he likes to say he’s not interested in popularity contests, he does have many parties to appease: owners, players, coaches, sponsors, TV partners and fans, among others." It can be "trying, a weight that Goodell shoulders mostly alone" (WASHINGTON POST, 1/26).
STRIKING A BALANCE: In L.A., Sam Farmer wrote the NFL is "an incredibly robust enterprise, one that generates" $9B a year in revenues. It "probably would survive the potentially huge damages those class-action lawsuits could bring." But say the league "did have to pay a staggering amount in damages." Would high schools "face prohibitive insurance premiums to keep football programs going? What about Pop Warner football?" Those NFL lawsuits have a "devastating ripple effect on football as we now know it." The league already has made "several rules changes to protect players, and more are in the offing, angering purists who say the sport has already been tweaked and twisted too much." The health and safety of players is "but one of many challenges the league is facing." Eighteen months after their labor fight was resolved, a "palpable tension remains" between the NFL and NFLPA. The sides have yet to "agree on how to test for illicit use of human growth hormone, even though there are strong suspicions some players are using it." More hurdles "clutter the NFL's path," including the Bountygate scandal and the "embarrassment of replacement officials who faltered in place of the locked-out regulars" (L.A. TIMES, 1/27).
LEAVING HIS MARK: USA TODAY's Jarrett Bell writes effective commissioners "must bridge the gaps between the owners who are their bosses and constituents such as the players who are essential to the game and business." While Goodell has been "proactive in emphasizing player safety and long-term health, more can be done." The NFL and the union have committed $300M toward "research into brain disease, and the league has improved its 88 Plan to support retirees suffering from dementia or similar conditions." Yet with "so many hard-luck cases involving the health of former players -- amid massive litigation initiated by former players -- Goodell is positioned to be even more of a leader on this front." How he works to "confront such issues could become his ultimate legacy" (USA TODAY, 1/28).