When former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed suit against the NFL for racial discrimination in its hiring policies last week, it created a dilemma for Goodell, and for the league. The NFL had just mounted what might have been its most successful season in a decade, and the last thing the NFL wanted was to look insensitive to racial issues, particularly with a player base that is about 70 percent Black.
But this is also the NFL, a multibillion-dollar operation that does not take well to being sued by its employees. Thus, the league’s initial reaction to Flores’s suit was to thunder that it was “without merit.” But then, over the weekend, Goodell also sent out a memo to teams saying the underwhelming effort to promote diversity among head coaches was “unacceptable.” Which was it?
In the news conference, Goodell appeared to try to reconcile the two contradictory stances by claiming that the “without merit” attack was just a “legal” distinction — even though the NFL’s response was in a news release, sent out over social media — and then acknowledged that there was “work to do.”
You almost wanted to believe him. The Goodell of 2014, the one who was sweaty and nervous at a famous news conference in New York City — when the hot NFL scandal involved domestic violence — bore no resemblance to the man outside SoFi Stadium on Wednesday.
This Goodell was smooth, comfortable and in control, but he also made sure to let you know he felt your pain. It was, dare to say, downright Clintonian.
How did he get so good at this? The nuances of Goodell’s performance are perhaps best evaluated by public relations professionals and theater critics, but it is also worth noting what Goodell’s job actually is.
The public tends to have the general idea that a sports commissioner is some sort of altruistic steward with the Best Interests of the Game in mind. This is incredibly, almost laughably incorrect; the job of any sports commissioner is to be a public representative of the owners, to be their spokesperson and primary advocate — to keep the money train always moving.
But if you think dealing with intrusive reporters at a news conference is difficult, try wrangling 32 different owners — all of whom, save for the shareholders of the community-owned Green Bay Packers, think their staggering wealth is a direct result of their personal insight and genius — into some sort of cohesive narrative through line. The source of almost all the NFL’s problems are those 32 owners, who are overwhelmingly male, rich and not Black.
Former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who is a thoughtful voice on civil rights, told me this week that if you’re wondering why there are not more African Americans in leadership positions in the NFL, ask the owners “how many Black friends they have.” These people are Goodell’s bosses.
Hence the Goodell two-step on Wednesday: When discussing matters such as the NFL’s ratings or revenue, he presented the league as a powerful, unified juggernaut; on difficult matters such as hiring Black head coaches, the league suddenly seemed a collection of 32 solo artists mysteriously falling short of expectations.
Goodell masterfully deployed the deflection tools of PR 101 for 45 minutes on Wednesday, then he waved and smiled and thanked everyone for coming. The clock had run out.
At the beginning of the news conference, a reporter asked Goodell how he felt about being asked about the league’s struggle with racial issues, just as he had been last year. I’ll confess: I saw last year’s news conference and had completely forgotten that questions about the league and race were the primary driver.
The subject will probably lead next year’s news conference, too. Goodell has trained us not to remember — to get through it, to focus on the games, to let it all slide by. It worked last year. It worked this year. It’ll probably work again next year.