Roger Goodell was Wesley Walker’s teammate with the New York Jets, sort of. The year was 1983, Walker was a 28-year-old receiver coming off his second Pro Bowl season, and Goodell was a 24-year-old NFL intern clipping newspaper stories and arranging player interviews with the press.
“A gofer,” Walker said of Goodell. “I thought he was a very nice young man.”
So 23 years later, with 13 NFL seasons and 71 touchdowns long behind him, Walker was surprised, but encouraged, when that Jets gofer became commissioner of the National Football League.
“For some reason, I thought Roger was going to be different,” Walker said. “I thought he would understand the players’ plight and do everything in his power to make it better, because he grew up with us. I was wrong.”
Walker was referring to mistakes his former co-worker has made while doing the owners’ bidding in a time of racial and social reckoning in America. As Goodell approaches his 15th season opener as commissioner, navigating the coronavirus pandemic while transitioning from a tumultuous offseason, he has reminded everyone that he is not paid his eight-figure salary by the men who made this league great — the players — but by the athletically challenged billionaires who usually don’t inspire fans to buy game tickets, team jerseys or RedZone packages.
Which helps explain why current Washington Football Team owner Daniel Snyder will be active in Week 1, while former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick will not — facts that define the damage Goodell has done to his own legacy.
Snyder stands accused of lording over a toxic and predatory culture, after The Washington Post published two exhaustively reported pieces that cited 42 women who said they had been subjected to harassment and misconduct while working for his team, allegations that, if proved true, should require the owner’s immediate removal. Goodell initially resisted calls to order an independent league-run investigation, before Snyder, of all people, said Monday he had suggested to the commissioner that he should hand Goodell control of the probe. (Goodell took him up on it.) The commissioner has described the alleged behavior of Washington executives, including Snyder, as “unprofessional, disturbing and abhorrent,” yet somehow he didn’t bench the owner pending completion of the process.
Since when did abhorrent conduct not warrant a forced leave in the NFL? Who believes that a player facing similar accusations wouldn’t end up on the commissioner’s exempt list?
Snyder denied the allegations that he once asked a team cheerleader to meet his friend in a hotel room and that he had requested the making of a lewd video of outtakes from a cheerleader photo shoot. ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap interviewed four former female employees of Snyder’s who spoke of a hostile work environment for women that one described as “one hundred percent” Snyder’s responsibility. This is the same man, Snyder, responsible for the absurdity of an NFL club entering the 2020 season under the name “Football Team.” And Goodell is the same man who, in 2013, wrote a letter to 10 members of Congress to defend Snyder’s indefensible position on what was then Washington’s racist team name.
Goodell should have already suspended Snyder in the wake of the Post stories and should suspend him today. Per NFL policy, owners are supposed to be held to a higher standard than players. Are they? Though Colts owner Jim Irsay was suspended six games for driving while intoxicated in 2014 and outgoing Panthers owner Jerry Richardson was fined $2.75 million for gross workplace misconduct in 2018, league discipline sometimes seems to travel down a one-way street.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft apologized for his embarrassing 2019 arrest in a Jupiter, Florida, prostitution sting and to date has escaped sanctions for conduct that surely would have compelled the commissioner to fine and/or suspend a Patriots player. (The NFL has chosen, instead, to wait for the legal case to be resolved.) Jets owner Woody Johnson, who reportedly made the kind of racist and sexist comments in his role as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom that should call for a separate NFL investigation — and a permanent ban if the alleged comments are confirmed — is under no such investigation.
It’s easier to discipline your employees than your employers, especially employers who have granted you the status worthy of an Augusta National membership. As much as the commissioner has been good for the owners’ valuations, the owners have been good for the commissioner’s vault. By the time he’s done working in the NFL, Goodell, 61, might have earned close to half a billion dollars.
Half. A. Billion.
Goodell has scrambled to earn his paycheck over the past three months by trying to right the league’s wrongs over the past four years, dating back to that first summer night Kaepernick decided he wouldn’t stand for the anthem of a country that oppresses people of color. Responding to the June video made by NFL stars, including Patrick Mahomes, charging the league to condemn racism and to admit its mistakes in trying to silence peaceful protests, Goodell released his own video conceding that the NFL was wrong “for not listening to NFL players earlier” and stating, “We the National Football League believe Black lives matter.” He never mentioned Kaepernick.
Asked in the social media series “Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man” what he would say to Kaepernick in the form of an apology, Goodell told host Emmanuel Acho, “The first thing I’d say is, ‘I wish we had listened earlier, Kap, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to,'” before assigning blame to the former quarterback for not accepting his invitations to meet.
The commissioner said the protests were “not about the flag,” that the “misrepresentation” of participating players as unpatriotic “really gnawed at me,” and that the horrific image of George Floyd dying under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin compelled him to think, “I hope people realize that’s what the players were protesting.”
Patrick Mahomes, Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham Jr. headline NFL players speaking out for justice in a statement directed at the NFL.
Kaepernick has always been clear on the reasons he was not standing during the anthem — systemic racism and police shootings of unarmed Black citizens — and did not have to meet with anyone to explain the obvious. Meanwhile, Goodell’s sudden epiphany is hard to take seriously when measured against his own stance on patriotism eight months after President Trump profanely called for the firing of those taking a knee.
“This season,” Goodell announced in May 2018, “all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem. Personnel who choose not to stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room until after the anthem has been performed.”
The policy was later shelved, allowing Goodell to tell Acho that the NFL has never disciplined a kneeling player.
He ignored what is effectively a 48-game (and counting) suspension of Kaepernick.
“Roger was too late with his change and just backtracked,” said Walker, the 65-year-old former Jets Pro Bowler. “People say it’s never too late to change, but why didn’t you do this in the first place? How did you not see what was going on in the country?”
Not long after Kaepernick first protested, civil rights activist and 49ers consultant Harry Edwards warned Goodell that the NFL risked turning the former quarterback into “an icon and world figure” — much like Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos — if it didn’t embrace the players’ right to demonstrate.
“It was the NFL owners and their stupidity and arrogance and abject ignorance that kept this movement on life support,” Edwards told ESPN.com in June. “Now we have this George Floyd situation, and Kaepernick and the other protesting athletes are not only made to look like they were right, they are made to look visionary and prophetic too.”
Tragically, the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, had the same effect and moved athletes in the NBA, WNBA, NHL and MLB to shut down their leagues in a staggering show of strength. The athletes’ refusal to lace ’em up focused renewed attention on Kaepernick and the owners who banished him over a fear that customers would quit watching their games.
Even if Goodell eventually decided he wanted Kaepernick on a roster, his inability to nudge one owner into signing him represents an alarming failure of leadership. Does anyone actually think that Pete Rozelle or David Stern or Adam Silver wouldn’t have been able to get that done?
So the NFL’s players don’t trust Goodell nearly as much as the NBA’s trust Silver. Pro football’s owners are perfectly fine with that too, as long as Goodell keeps them on schedule to meet his goal of $25 billion in gross revenue by 2027, and as long as he keeps providing them cover whenever they are in dire need. Like the past three months.
Truth is, Goodell might be willing to give back a year’s salary if it earned him a mulligan on player protests. But it’s too late now.
What a shame. People close to Goodell believe he did more in past years than his critics know and point to, among other things, his police ride-alongs with Dolphins players in 2017 and to the letter he wrote that year with Seattle’s Doug Baldwin to the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. But had Goodell quieted the Jerry Joneses and rehired Kaepernick and truly empowered his players, he would not have needed to apologize for not listening to them, and the conversation around the league’s Inspire Change Initiative, the voting initiative that includes a leaguewide off day on Election Day and a prime-time NBC hour devoted to players and the drive for equality and the $250 million committed to social justice causes would be different.
Instead, after Goodell expressed condolences to the families of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and said their deaths informed the NFL’s ongoing efforts to address systemic issues, filmmaker Ava DuVernay tweeted, “Shame on you. This is beyond hollow + disingenuous. … You’ve done nothing but the exact opposite of what you describe here.”
Edwards, his friend, called it “the equivalent of Dracula pledging to make regular donations to the blood bank.”
From a distance, Walker watched with sadness as Goodell squandered opportunities to advocate for players. Walker has spent much of his post-NFL life paying for the hits he took on the field, often suffering from head-to-toe pain and numbness that made him regret his choice of occupations. He wanted Goodell to be more accepting of the science when it came to brain trauma and CTE.
He also expected the commissioner to be more empathetic in matters of race. Walker’s father served in the Army, and his son John graduated from West Point, and yet Walker said he never recited the Pledge of Allegiance or placed his hand over his heart during the anthem because of the racism he has confronted in his life. He said that his Jets teams were divided along racial lines and that he knew of teammates who referred to him as the N-word.
“I believe in America,” Walker said. “I love America. But as a Black man in this country, it’s heartbreaking to know there still isn’t equal opportunity. … For today’s players, I wish that ownership would see what they are experiencing and stand with them.”
NFL owners have let Goodell do their talking for them, when he decides the time is right. (A league spokesman said the commissioner was not available for comment for this column.) This was Goodell’s dream job as a college graduate, a couple of years before he jumped from a league internship to one with the Jets, who kept young Roger around for a year before he returned to the league office for keeps. Goodell has said that he still cherishes the relationships he developed with players on that Jets team.
“But he’s working for ownership now,” Walker said, “and it’s a whole different story.”
Goodell maintained in a Tuesday conference call that NFL leaders “will not relent in our work” to fight systemic racism; players will be allowed to wear the names of victims on their helmets, and the words “It Takes All of Us” and “End Racism” will appear in all end zones. But the commissioner’s failure to lead his employers to the moral high ground much earlier might hurt him more in the long term than Spygate, Bountygate, Deflategate and Ray Rice, and for no good reason. Goodell has spent his entire adult life in pro football, and he should have known as much as any executive about what Black players — and their families and friends — were experiencing.
He still missed what was unfolding right in front of him, as NFL stars have finally made their stand. Their remarkable June video, posted 10 days after George Floyd’s killing, compelled the commissioner to surrender — without, shockingly enough, asking for ownership’s permission — and could go down as the moment pro football’s power dynamic changed forever.
So as he starts his 15th season in the only job he’s ever wanted, set against an extraordinary time in sport and society, Roger Goodell should already know where this critical chapter of his story will end.
On the losing side of history.