Friday, February 1, 2013

Speech Won’t Erase Grudges Against Roger Goodell In New Orleans

Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League, arrived in a hostile territory, took the stage and stood his ground. He’s not a likable person, at least not in New Orleans. He’s not welcomed in a town, where fans have a grudge against the commish. He likes the city and its fans as well — and they don’t like him.

The people of these festive, active streets aren’t over the infamous Bountygate scandal and could paint a mural of him with devil horns above his head to bring laughter to a community filled with anger, after leaving a population in a predicament. But the words, spoken by a humiliated man during Goodell’s State of the League Address, won’t rid grudges against him in New Orleans.

Eleven months ago, in this forgiving country, a despairing town turned its back on Goodell. They still won’t let it go, dwelling on the past and pointing the finger at nobody else but the commish who wrongly killed the Saints executional style, when he dropped the proverbial hammer on New Orleans for the bounty system. Sean Payton, the Saints head coach who led the team to a Super Bowl victory three years ago, was suspended for the entire 2012 season without pay. Rather than levying a light punishment, enough to put fear on players who dare to supervise a bounty program, he suspended Saints general manager Mickey Loomis for eight games.

Wait, there’s more.

Goodell, the NFL Sheriff who, to some, took a position to his head, fined the Saints $500,000 and suspended the ringmaster Gregg Williams indefinitely. In unprecedented cases, as with Roger Goodell, it ruined the Saints season and finally he realized that he crossed the line by abusing his authority to lose credibility and trust. Today, was a moment he tried to win back the vast majority of those folks in New Orleans giving him the evil eye and heckling him throughout the city. Today, was a moment he failed to gain stature among resentful New Orleans fans, as the most hated commissioner in the history of the NFL.

By now, you know that citizens are hoping he steps down as the head honcho and becomes so fatigued in a role of responsibilities and headaches. It’s a long time coming if he decides to escape the burdens and allow bitter fans to exhaust him with obscenities and personal attacks. Goodell’s speech is only the most recent assumption on how bad he’s trying to reduce the anger and make those people like him again, underscoring the reality that player’s safety is a top priority.

If and when the day comes that he’d seriously take the initiative to protect not only the brand but also the players, he would likely earn back respect and reconcile with the past. For once, he’s shown sensitivity to safety, coming up with a solution to minimize the significant amount of head injuries happening frequently in the league. He’s not, as of this moment, ignoring player’s safety, reiterating the importance of discipline — to eliminate some tackling and suggest that discipline will come down hard on players who violate rules.

“This is something that we have seen, an escalation in the discipline, because we are trying to take these techniques out of the game,” said Goodell. “I think it was about four years ago at this very press conference, I said, ‘We have to take these hits out of the game that we think have a higher risk of causing injuries.’ The focus was on defenseless players, and I stand by our record because I think we have made those changes and made the game safer. I think we’re going to have to continue to see discipline escalate, particularly on repeat offenders.”

It won’t matter to folks in New Orleans what measures he takes to enhance safety at this point. The damage has already been done, and a community is not very forgiving. By now, he knows that, he knows he’s not liked by most of the people who reside in the city.

“We’re going to continue to emphasize the importance of following those rules. When there are violations, we will escalate the discipline,” said Goodell.

The population of New Orleans won’t take the word discipline too kindly.

When he stepped on the glittery stage to address the media, it was an appearance of a manipulator looking for a change. As much as anything, Goodell wants his professional disgrace to dematerialize. For much of the week, while in New Orleans, he’s been busy and dealing with a flurry of lawsuits and a public backlash. Goodell, a very smart man, knows it all. A lot of people want him to disappear into the darkness forever, without ever showing his face publicly, now the perfect scapegoat for incompetence.

Not surprisingly, he’s responsible for the Saints plights in the 2012 season, and fans are not obligated to what his next step is as far as focusing on safety. Outside the convention center, infuriated fans, raging over the bounty scandal, heckled and harassed Goodell. He’s not welcomed to restaurants and bars. Inside the windows, signs are plastered that suggest service to Goodell would be refused. With a portrait of Goodell covering the bull’s eye on a dartboard at one lounge, he also has a float dedicated to him in the Mardi Gras parade and he’s even a voodoo doll.

The bitterness is still raw. The feeling of hate is still stronger than ever, perhaps because he’s in town for the Super Bowl festivities. Even amid his latest promises, fans are mad over Bountygate. A man that once helped rebuild the Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is seen on a banner that hangs from the Superdome ridiculing him. It’s clear that he’s not a saint in New Orleans, but a villain who needed extra security and a secret dungeon to lay his head at nights, without having to worry about death threats in a city where segments of the community despises him. While players have derided him, he’s had his suspensions overturned. He was joking around about New Orleans’ reaction to his arrival. The reality is that he was far more concerned about safety, which was his excuse for harshly penalizing the Saints last March.

“That is bad for the players, for the game, and I think the message is incredibly clear, and I don’t believe that bounties will be part of football going forward,” he said. “. . . As it relates to the regrets, I think my biggest regret is that we aren’t recognizing that this is a collective responsibility to get them out of the game, to make the game safer.”

There’s not a season that goes by without players suffering a concussion, which can trigger brain damage and can lead to dementia that often affects memory, thinking and behavior. All week, the NFL’s commissioner has stayed away from the crowd, barely showing his face in public, feeling a bit uneasy and nervous to step out of his hotel room. The hotel has a scattered, spacious lobby, which is perfect to surreptitiously escape and hide from the bitter crowd. When he does leave his secret suite, he’s quickly jumping into a flashy car with tinted windows and riding behind a line of police motorcycles. He’s publicly keeping his distance and he’s trying to avoid busy streets — Bourbon Street.

The important thing is that the NFL needs to protect its name and brand. The Saints paid greatly for their bounty program when it was uncovered. The growing number of lawsuits could prove costly for the league. But Goodell, as the person in charge, thinks he found a solution and suggested harsher penalties for hard hits.

When asked if he felt like he was behind enemy lines during the state of the league address, he smiled and had no comment.

It’s up to Goodell, not the fans.