Thoughts on Roger Goodell as the lockout looms

My only up-close-and-personal look at NFL commissioner Roger Goodell came in late October when the 49ers played the Broncos in London.

The day before the game, Goodell met with Denver and Bay Area beat writers in a conference room at the Landmark Hotel. After the question-and-answer session with reporters, Goodell went downstairs and took more questions during a town-hall-like forum that drew nearly 200 fans.

Goodell, in person, was impressive. Particularly when interacting with Joe Fan.

In fact, as he worked the massive ballroom during the forum, fielding unscreened questions on issues ranging from concussions to touchdown celebrations, it was easy to forget he was the son of a former U.S. Senator and leader of a bazillion-dollar business.

Goodell gently trash talked some members of the audience, telling a Broncos fan — a week removed from his team’s 45-point loss to the Raiders — that the NFL obviously didn’t have a mercy rule. With help from the jersey-clad crowd, he cajoled one reluctant fan into unveiling a touchdown celebration. He took a funny, subtle shot at crumbling Candlestick Park and generally displayed more wit, sarcasm and regular-guy-ness in one hour than we see from most corporate suits in a lifetime.

Asked about his favorite play in NFL history, he didn’t go politician, begging off the question for fear of playing favorites. He mentioned David Tryee’s impossible pin-on-the-helmet grab in the Super Bowl. In a different nod to NFL history, he noticed Hall-of-Fame Steelers owner Dan Rooney sitting unnoticed with his wife at the back of the room and touched on Rooney’s contributions to the game. He later did the same when he spotted legendary former kicker Morten Anderson.

Call me naïve or stupidly optimistic – you won’t be the first – but I left the hotel that day with this thought: Good-old, have-a-beer-on-the-Barcalounger Roger, a commissioner so clearly in tune with the populace and in love with the sport, would never let the league reach a labor impasse.

You know, Super Commish.

His natural man-of-the-people charm managed to overshadow another moment that day when Goodell was in full, buttoned-up corporate mode.

During the meeting with beat writers, Goodell discussed the owners’ proposal to have an 18-game regular season. He explained that it was about the fans (the fans!), who were clamoring for fewer preseason games. As a result, the NFL wanted to swap out two low-quality preseason games for two high-quality regular-season games. It was still 20 games in total, he said nonchalantly. He explained that it would be no more wear and tear on the players (whose long-term health, of course, was foremost in the league’s mind!) And it would be a win for the NFL’s beloved fans.

At that time, still more than four months away from the expiration of the current CBA, it was the first time I’d heard that dubious stance articulated.

Of course, we’ve since heard the 18-game-regular-season argument voiced repeatedly. And we’ve also learned some other, less-than-savory details about the league and its owners. Most notably, they negotiated TV contracts so they would have $4 billion lying around during a lockout. This week, a U.S. District Judge said not so fast, declaring that the NFL was using the TV contracts to “advance its own interests and harm the interests of the players.” Goodbye, lockout insurance. Hello, escrow.

Goodell, obviously, is much closer to the NFL owners in spirit than he is to Joe Fan.

But with today’s news that the owners and players have agreed to a 24-hour extension of the current CBA to continue negotiating, I’ve been reminded of my impression of Goodell as he interacted with fans in London.

Part of me still believes he’ll do whatever it takes to prevent a lockout.

And that same part of me, as mentioned, can be a bit naïve.

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