Posted: Monday May 31, 2010 7:59AM ; Updated: Wednesday June 2, 2010 3:03PM
Peter King

Goodell's leadership could be main key in avoiding job action in 2011

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NFL commissioner Roger Goodell gave the commencement speech at UMass-Lowell.

LOWELL, Mass. -- I've been thinking there's a strong likelihood the 2011 NFL season will be interrupted because the players and owners won't reach agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement. And I'm not sure I've changed my mind. But two things happened in the past week that made me feel like there might not be a job action.

One: Commissioner Roger Goodell, who could have gotten the modified overtime proposal for the 2010 regular season passed by the owners last Tuesday at the league meeting in Dallas, chose not to call for a vote. The union leadership opposes the new overtime policy. It has the potential to add plays to the season; more plays, more risk of injury. The players may not see this as an olive branch. I do. Had the measure passed, the union would have seen it as another divisive they-don't-care-what-we-think brick in the wall.

Two: Goodell's commencement speech at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell Saturday left me thinking -- and there's a certain optimistic naivete to this, perhaps -- that Goodell will find a way to bridge the gap with the union, somehow. He harped on this in his address to the 2,308 grads, at one point telling them his advice on how to make tough decisions. "Listen,'' he said. "And listen to many different viewpoints, especially with those of whom you disagree. Resist the temptation to make premature decisions and be open to find a better solution. And if it's a better solution, it doesn't matter who it came from. The world needs a lot less finger-pointing and a lot more solutions.''

I may be reaching, but Goodell's four-year tenure has been marked by the ability to make tough calls and have all sides of a dispute walk away not happy with the decision necessarily, but at least understanding why the decision was made. Spygate. The revised, and much tougher, Personal Conduct Policy. Reinstating Donte' Stallworth after a year's suspension for DUI vehicular homicide. Suspending Ben Roethlisberger six weeks for,basically being the worst kind of cad. I doubt Bill Belichick and Goodell will ever be pals, but there's an understanding the league office did what it had to do for the honor of the game with Spygate. And if you saw the collegial respect Goodell and Patriots owners Bob Kraft showed each other when the Pats' owner introduced Goodell for the commencement here, you'd see the heavy-handed sanction for Spygate is a distant memory in Kraft's mind. He's one of Goodell's staunchest allies.

I remember sitting at an off-the-record dinner one night at the 2009 league meetings with Goodell and some club executives and owners. One of the owners, a staunch Goodell ally, was unhappy with how the league had disciplined one of his players, and Goodell, good-naturedly but firmly, told him basically to get over it. Sometimes you're not going to agree with your boss, but the impression I've gotten from multiple owners is they believe he's making decisions with 32 teams in mind. No favoritism.


Before his commencement speech here, Goodell was in a room offstage with three of his four brothers, plus the university chancellor, former Congressman Marty Meehan, and George Mitrovich, the former press secretary for the commissioner's father, the late Charles Goodell, who succeeded Robert Kennedy as senator in New York when Kennedy was felled by an assassin's bullet in June 1968 while campaigning for the presidency.

Meehan's a huge football fan -- he attended his 16th straight draft in April and has Patriots season tickets -- and asked Goodell if he'd speak here. But he had a hook: Meehan wanted to give Charles Goodell a posthumous honorary degree for showing the kind of political courage we'd never see today. A staunch Republican, Charles Goodell earned the enmity of President Richard Nixon and VP Spiro Agnew for co-sponsoring a bill that would have cut funding for the Vietnam War. "It was a profile in courage,'' Meehan said. "People are cynical about politics today, and rightfully so. But Sen. Goodell risked his career because of what was morally right. There are people in this world willing to risk everything they have for a principle, and that's a great lesson for our students to learn.''

"My dad,'' said Bill Goodell, one of Roger's four brothers "actually had a higher percentage of voting with Nixon than [arch-conservative] Barry Goldwater. He just picked his spots. It wasn't just the Vietnam vote -- he also was the first Republican to oppose the nomination of [Clement] Haynesworth and the first senator to come out against [G. Harrold] Carswell, the two Supreme Court nominees.''

That helped land Goodell on Nixon's Enemies List. The four Goodell boys spoke of their father's conscience, and his willingness to stand up for what he felt was right despite the personal consequences, as being major factors in how they live their lives today. And when Roger Goodell spoke to the students, he told them the impact of his father's political decisions.

"He lost so very much,'' a cap-and-gowned Goodell said in his 15-minute address to the graduates and their families. "He lost his re-election. He lost his political career he loved so very dearly. But what did he retain? Something much bigger. His principles. His integrity. His character. He established an important legacy.''

Speaking to the grads, he said: "As you build your legacy, it will be determined not by what you do, but by how you do it. Have the courage to do what you believe in. Do it with everything you've got.''


What should every commencement speaker do at this time of year? Simple: Tell kids how to get jobs. Goodell's advice began when he graduated from Washington & Jefferson College just outside of Pittsburgh in 1981 and wanted to work in football. Anything in football.

"I wrote more than 40 letters to the NFL,'' he said. "Everybody. The results: a big pile of rejections. Some plan, huh? But I was determined and persistent and kept writing. Finally, there was a polite but somewhat dismissive reply from a weary executive at the NFL to, quote, 'Stop by if you're in the area.' So I told him, 'I'm in the area.' ''

Sort of.

"I got in my car,'' Goodell said, "and drove all night from Pittsburgh to New York, and I was on his doorstep the next morning. Six months later, 12 or 13 more letters later, they offered me a three-month internship. So it doesn't matter how you get in that door. Just get in that door. The lesson: Seize every opportunity.''

A little while after his speech, I caught up with one of the graduates, 23-year-old history major Thomas Screnci of Milton, Mass. I asked him what he thought of the speech.

"Very inspirational,'' Screnci said. "He knew what we wanted to hear. We all wanted to know how he got from college to here. He told us what we needed to hear -- there are no shortcuts, no magic formula. He got dozens of rejection letters, but he was determined to show his boss what he was made of. Same thing with us now. Now it's our shot to show the world what we're made of.''

In front of a civic center of strangers Saturday, Roger Goodell did his father proud.
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