It was 85 degrees in Los Angeles on Wednesday, but that wasn’t the reason why Roger Goodell was sweating.
Taking questions at his annual State of the NFL Super Bowl press conference, the NFL commissioner wore his customary blue suit as he sat in the sun in front of a group of reporters waiting to ask him a litany of questions that were sure to put his antiperspirant to the test. You see, a year ago, Goodell was in the same position in Tampa Bay when all anybody wanted to talk about was the lack of Black coaches in the NFL and why it takes a miracle for them to get hired. A year later, the premise was the same but with a twist, as Goodell is dealing with Brian Flores’ 58-page class-action lawsuit against the NFL, the Miami Dolphins, the New York Giants, and the Denver Broncos, alleging discrimination regarding his interview process.
Whenever drama takes place within a league, the commissioner is the one that has to take it on the chin. But, when it comes to the NFL, the punches aimed at the commissioner’s face are uppercuts instead of jabs. To understand why you have to go back to the beginning — 2006.
“Your conduct has brought embarrassment and ridicule upon yourself, your club, and the N.F.L., and has damaged the reputation of players throughout the league. You have engaged in conduct detrimental to the N.F.L. and failed to live up to the standards expected of N.F.L. players.”
That’s what Goodell wrote in a 2007 letter to then-Tennessee Titans cornerback Pacman Jones and Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry. Goodell had just suspended Jones for the season and Henry for eight games, as he started his tenure as a no-nonsense leader that was going to crack down on wrongdoers, establishing a new level of accountability.
What Goodell didn’t realize is that when you set a bar that high, people will hold you to it. That’s why he looked so uncomfortable on Wednesday, as he was being held to the standards that he set for himself and his league about the one thing that they’ve been willing participants in for decades — racism.
“I think I’d start with the basis that racism or any form of discrimination is against our values. And really something that we will not tolerate,” he said.
That statement is untrue, given that on top of Brian Flores’ lawsuit, the NFL faced a similar situation with Colin Kaepernick’s and Eric Reid’s collusion suit a few years ago. There’s also the fact that Goodell publicly apologized to Kaepernick and said, “I wished we had listened earlier.”
The thing that Goodell and so many other white people miss the mark on in situations like this is that they don’t get to say what is/isn’t racist and prejudiced. In the same way that men will never understand what it’s like to deal with pregnancy or a menstrual cycle, white people don’t get the honor of determining bigotry, because at its essence it’s something they’ve never experienced or can truly understand. It’s the reason why NFL Network reporter Jim Trotter became the talk of the press conference by asking the only question that mattered.
Why does the NFL and its owners have such a difficult time, at the highest levels, hiring Black people into decision-making positions?
Before he asked, Trotter provided Goodell, and the world, with important context. He explained that in the NFL’s 100-plus year history, 24 of the 32 teams have had only one or zero Black coaches. The Bills, Commanders, Cowboys, Falcons, Giants, Jaguars, Panthers, Patriots, Rams, Ravens, Saints, Seahawks, and the Titans haven’t had a Black head coach at all. The league is still without a Black majority owner, as it only has two Black club presidents. Trotter went on to mention that the league now has seven Black general managers and three Black coaches, with two of them being hired after Flores filed his lawsuit. He also mentioned that of the top 11 executives in the league office, only two of them are people of color. And that at NFL Media Group, there isn’t a single Black person at the senior level in the newsroom.
There’s a reason why Goodell stuttered and stammered through his initial response.
“We look at the same numbers and they’re really part of the effort, again, looking at how do we become more effective in our policies and procedures. We work really hard and believe in diversity,” he said. Again, this is something that Goodell and people that look like him don’t have the right to say, as “we have to do a better job,” just isn’t good enough — and it never has been.
When asked if he bears some responsibility for the lack of diversity throughout the NFL, Goodell responded by saying, “Yes I do.” But, it’s not like he had a choice, it’s his job to say that. A job that paid him around $128 million from 2019 to 2021. When you start your career in the way that Goodell did and get paid that kind of money to work for the owners — his bosses — you’ve willingly put yourself in a winless position. Outside of his salary, the commissioner is playing a zero-sum game when it comes to how he’s viewed and will be remembered by many.
Goodell was also asked what the league needs to do to be better. “If it requires an overhaul, you do it,” he answered. “If it requires changes in other areas, you do it.” He then mentioned that he believes that clubs have the authority to remove an owner from the league. That’s good information to know given that Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has been accused of offering a bribe to a coach in order to lose games, while the Houston Texans ownership has done multiple things to show their lack of flavor for Black people as it keeps hiring Black coaches to fail.
It’s impossible to overhaul a system that operates like this given the billions the NFL generates and the way it dominates television ratings. The NFL wasn’t built to be overhauled. It was created to generate revenue by any means necessary and to be led by a man that’s controlled by the 32 people that govern the league. Being the NFL’s commissioner is like being stuck between a rock and a hard place after signing a waiver clearing the league of all responsibility.