Frank Deford, the legendary sportswriter who’s been at SI for over 50 years, has a weekly radio spot on NPR. On Wednesday, he used the platform to skewer Roger Goodell over the light Ray Rice punishment, and theorized that the NFL would be far better served by new leadership (emphasis and hyperlinks included in the transcription are mine):
“The larger question is whether Goodell is good enough to serve as the leader of the NFL, which is not only by far the most popular game in this country, but in reality something more than that. In today’s divided America, what other entertainment, and what other institution, means so much to so many people across all our class, educational, racial, and ethnic spectrums?
Really, don’t we need someone of greater stature at the helm of the NFL? Someone who appreciates that he should, if only symbolically, be the steward of all football America? Someone who is neither of so parochial a background, or so commercially constricted as is Goodell? [He dreamt of being Commissioner as a young boy and has worked for the NFL all his adult life.]”
Because of the NFL’s outsized reach, Deford said, Goodell should have a more pronounced cultural awareness:
“Yes, to be fair, all our major leagues now choose their leaders from within — a narrow, vocational primogeniture. But if all these so-called czars have provincial sports backgrounds, the demands upon Goodell are greater because his league casts such a longer shadow. Obviously he is a CEO of a huge enterprise, and thus must attend to the business at hand — something Goodell certainly seems to do good enough — but it is the power of football today that begs for a leader with greater perspective and sensitivity.
Especially given the brutal nature of football that increasingly indicts it on moral charges, and the virtual drumroll of off the field violence — so often against women, committed by so many football players — Goodell’s sideswipe of a punishment to Ray Rice indicates if nothing else a cultural ignorance on his part.”
Deford realized that, pragmatically, Goodell would probably never be removed by the owners — his bosses — who have become so enriched during his tenure:
“Remember, this is the businessman who’s widely compared to tobacco executives for so long procrastinating denying the effects of obvious occupational concussions. A promoter who hanged the good health of his fungible players even now wants more Thursday games and a longer regular season schedule.
But, the NFL is the biggest boon this side of the Internet, so Goodell is cocooned by his ever-richer owners and a phalanx of admiring football reporters. The networks, his breathless partners, are simply bootlickers. The exalted NFL so needs a rector, a magistrate, who comes to the game, not from within it. It needs a leader of grace and vision. More and more, Roger Goodell just looks like a slick, selling us seventy-six trombones.”
Keith Olbermann excerpted Deford’s radio essay, and called for a reporter in attendance at Goodell’s press conference at the Hall of Fame this weekend to ask the Commissioner to address the commentary:
The one major part of Deford’s thesis that I personally disagree with is that the press has been largely complicit in covering for Goodell. From my purview, there are some conspicuous, sycophantic writers and broadcasters out there — and Goodell is far less likely to receive harsh criticism from the league’s television partners, though he’s not immune from it — but by and large the sentiment against Goodell online is scathing. The variance in press perception might be because of our demographic differences, and thus the media we choose to consume.