The vast majority of NFL players are fed up with Commissioner Roger Goodell’s vaguely defined power to oversee discipline, an ESPN poll found Thursday. But players' general dissatisfaction with Goodell’s leadership was clear long before a federal judge overturned his decision to suspend Tom Brady in connection with the “Deflategate” scandal.
Of the more than 100 players who responded to ESPN’s survey, 88 percent said Goodell should not oversee player discipline, as the NFL’s current collective bargaining agreement stipulates. Goodell is unpopular among the players and increasingly reviled by the public, but the growing disdain seems to have had little effect on his job security or the league's overall health.
“Over the years, we’ve seen repeated scenarios where the league has suffered some kind of legal embarrassment or loss, and it has no absolutely no impact on the business of the league,” said Gary Roberts, dean emeritus and professor at Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law. “The fans are still turning out, paying high prices for tickets; television ratings continue to go up. There just doesn’t seem to be any connection between the success of the league as a business and these off-field issues.”
Goodell earned a $32 million salary in 2013, the most recent year the figure was reported. Bolstered by massive media rights deals, the league’s franchises split more than $7 billion in revenue last year, CBS Sports reported. Goodell's future with the league likely remains secure as long as the numbers stay strong, but growing player dissatisfaction may hint at a coming labor battle over the limits of his authority.
U.S. Circuit Court Judge Richard Berman’s reversal of Brady’s “Deflategate” punishment made it clear that the commissioner’s near-total power over league employees may soon be curtailed. Players are challenging Goodell’s decisions in court with an increasing degree of success, as evidenced by Brady's successful appeal and similar legal decisions to overturn the suspensions of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson after their respective domestic violence incidents.
A 2013 USA Today poll of 300 players found 61 percent disapproved of the job Goodell had done as commissioner. That was more than a year before Goodell’s widely disparaged handling of “Deflategate” and the NFL’s domestic violence scandal, which led many to call for his resignation.
This week's ESPN player survey also found nearly three-fourths of players thought New England Patriots employees knowingly deflated footballs used during the AFC Championship game last January. Players aren’t against discipline -- they just don’t think Goodell should be the one to mete it out.
Berman’s decision established a federal legal precedent which directly undermines the commissioner’s powers as laid out in the NFL’s current collective bargaining agreement, all but assuring Goodell’s authority will be curtailed when league executives and player representatives negotiate a new deal after the 2021 season. Players may get their wish – a neutral arbitrator to preside over discipline. In the meantime, the NFL’s overall popularity and financial success shows no signs of slowing down.