Does Roger Goodell have what it takes to lead NFL on racial injustice issues?

The life of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reflects the segregation and inequity in America.

He makes $40 million in annual compensation and lives in Bronxville, New York, where about 1% of the residents are Black.

He graduated from a high school and a college that were virtually all-white.

He works for a league where 70% of the players are Black, but the head coaches, team executives and team owners are almost all white.

So is Goodell, a 61-year-old white man, the right person to lead the NFL at this pivotal point in history and into the progressive direction he suggests they’re headed?

He was slow to get on the right path with the issue of domestic violence. Criticized for the same thing with the issue of concussions. Scrutinized for his handling of controversies such as Bountygate and Deflategate, and now this potentially career-defining moment for Goodell looms as the most delicate and complicated of them all.  

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NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at the 2019 draft with Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray, who was taken No. 1 overall by the Arizona Cardinals

Harry Edwards, a renowned sociologist of sports and civil rights activist, said it’s important to remember Goodell works for the NFL’s 32 team owners, some of whom have expressed far less enthusiasm for change than Goodell recently has.

“When you’re at the helm of the ship but you’ve got 32 guys behind you wearing a captain’s hat, that becomes a very difficult situation,’’ Edwards said. “He’s in a tough political situation.

“That’s not an excuse, as far as I’m concerned. That’s what he’s paid to do.’’

As if the coronavirus pandemic weren’t daunting enough, anger over issues of racial injustice has roiled professional sports. The NFL season starts Thursday night, when the Kansas City Chiefs play the Houston Texans, two weeks since NBA teams began a three-day pause of playoff games in protest of a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shooting a Black man seven times in the back.

Players in Major League Baseball, the WNBA and MLS also refused to play games, fueling speculation about whether NFL players would ever boycott games.

“These athletes are not trying to get back to normal,’’ said Edwards, a longtime consultant for the NFL and in particular for the San Francisco 49ers. “This movement is not about getting back to normal. The normal was toxic, and that has to change and that’s what these athletes are saying.’’

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That has become strikingly clear this NFL offseason, as New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees knows well.

On June 3, nine days after George Floyd was killed when a white police officer pinned his knee on the Black man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, Brees agreed to an interview with Yahoo Finance. Asked what he thought of NFL players kneeling again during the national anthem when the season starts, Brees replied, “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.’’

He was repeating something alleged many times before — but not true, according to the players taking a knee — and this time his comments triggered a wave of public anger from Black players.

Malcolm Jenkins, one of Brees’ teammates and a leader among Black players fighting for social justice, responded to Brees by video and said in part, “Sometimes you should shut the (expletive) up.’’

Brees apologized the next day, and a day after that an emotional video featuring Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and several other prominent Black players went viral. The players called on the NFL to condemn racism, to condemn the systematic oppression of Black people and to admit it was wrong in trying to silence the players from peaceful protests.

Goodell, who declined to comment for this story, responded with his own video that next day, saying, “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe Black lives matter.”

Although these were words Goodell had never publicly uttered before, it remains to be seen whether he has the political skills, will and courage to bring meaningful change to the NFL. His history, part of which has gone largely unwritten, offers clues.

‘What’s best for the team?’

In 1976, Goodell was a senior captain for the football team at Bronxville High School, essentially an all-white school that had never had a Black player.

As the season approached, nearby Tuckahoe High School shut down its athletics program because of financial problems and Jim Roberson, a talented Black football player at Tuckahoe, expressed interest in playing at Bronxville. Goodell and Roberson were already acquainted.

The previous two years, they had worked summer jobs together at Bronxville High School. Once Goodell left Roberson up on a ladder and another time Goodell painted Roberson’s shoes blue, Roberson told USA TODAY Sports in a recent interview.

Bronxville welcomed Roberson to the football program.

“Roger was a halfback on our football team,’’ said Vito Priore, who coached the 1976 team. “When he heard that Jim Roberson would be willing to come to Bronxville, Roger on his own accord approached me and said, ‘Coach, look, Jim Roberson, no question is a better running halfback than I am. He should be the halfback and I’ll move to tight end.’ So he moved.

“His attitude was, ‘What’s best for the team?’ It really didn’t matter whether Jim was a person of color. He was very well-received by our team, and Roger was instrumental.’’

Roberson said he didn’t hear that story until years after he and Goodell had graduated from Bronxville High in 1977.

“If a guy had a problem with somebody else’s color, there’s no way in the world a dude makes a move like that,’’ Roberson said. “I’m trying to tell you what kind of people this guy is. He’s just good folk, man. I grew up in the projects. Roger Goodell grew up in a big old house. But he’s been to my house to eat. He’s met my folks. You know, my dad passed away two years ago. Roger Goodell was at the funeral.

“His mother took he and I to a recruitment visit at the University of Albany in New York. I stayed with his aunt. Oh, these are good people, man.’’

Roberson lives in England and said he sees Goodell when the NFL plays its annual games in London, and he laughs about the time Goodell left him up on the ladder and painted Roberson’s shoes blue. But Roberson said he catches flak from his Black friends about Goodell.

“Oh, hell yeah,’’ Roberson said. “They Facebook me. They email me. Black people refer to him as my boy. ‘Your boy messed up again.’

“But I would never view Roger Goodell as any kind of sellout because of what know I about him in our past together.’’

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell during a press conference before Super Bowl LIV.

Pushing the owners

As few as five Black students were enrolled at Washington & Jefferson College when Goodell attended the school between 1977 to 1981, according Michael Pratt, a Black classmate of Goodell’s during those years and now a member of the school’s board of trustees.

“I experienced a number of racist incidents,’’ said Pratt, a star guard on the school’s Division III basketball team. “There were clearly racist attitudes exhibited during the four years I was there. I would defy anyone who was there to say that they didn’t hear or experience the same things.

“But overall, I can say there were a lot of people who were very good to me.’’

Goodell was among them, according to Pratt.

“He always treated me with kindness and respect,’’ he said. “We weren’t close friends, but we were good acquaintances, and he was always a balanced, friendly, hard-working, disciplined student and well-rounded.’’

Pratt said he is unaware of an incident described in a 2011 Sports Illustrated article that depicts Goodell as heroic during a tense racial incident. The details from the SI article: Goodell was a 21-year-old senior tending bar at the Landmark near the Washington & Jefferson campus in southwest Pennsylvania.

One evening, a Black student walked into the crowded bar, ordered a beer and sat at a corner table. A white townie who’d had too much to drink ordered the Black student to leave the bar and opened his coat to reveal a revolver.

“He can stay,” Goodell said. “He’s allowed to have a drink.” Then Goodell walked the townie outside the bar, down the street and the incident was over.

In the SI piece, Goodell was not quoted about the incident. The magazine did quote Tim Foil, one of the bar’s owners, who said he was not at the Landmark that night but had seen such incidents before. He has since died. But his brother, Ron Foil, told USA TODAY Sports he was working in the kitchen the night of the incident but has never talked about it with Goodell.

“I really don’t know much more other than Roger was defending the colored fellow,’’ Ron Foil said.

Pratt, an attorney in Philadelphia, said he thinks Goodell did the right thing by saying the NFL should have listened sooner to Colin Kaepernick and other players who have protested.

“He stepped up and said he was wrong, and that’s what we ask people to do that put themselves in other folks’ shoes and try to empathize and feel their pain,’’ Pratt said. “But he can’t just do that by words. He has to do that by action and making amends for that and pushing other owners to do the same thing.’’

Right side of history

Edwards, the sociologist and civil rights activist, said he has been in regular contact with Goodell since August 2006, when the NFL’s owners chose Goodell to succeed Paul Tagliabue as commissioner. A decade later, Edwards said, he called Goodell shortly after Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem for the first time.

“I tried to get him to understand your position has to be on this to help move this from protest to progress,’’ Edwards said. “And those are not just words for PR.’’

It took almost four years for Goodell to say the NFL should have listened earlier to Kaepernick — and it was a familiar pattern. In July 2014, the NFL issued a two-game suspension for Ray Rice, then a running back for the Baltimore Ravens. This was four months after TMZ released a video showing Rice dragging his unconscious fiancee out of a hotel elevator. Police said Rice had struck Janay Palmer, now his wife.

With Goodell resisting calls to issue a longer suspension, TMZ on Sept. 8 released surveillance video from inside the hotel that showed Rice punching Palmer in the face. Hours later, Goodell suspended Rice indefinitely and denied the NFL had seen the surveillance footage.

In the case of the NFL’s foot dragging on supporting player protests and treatment of Kaepernick, who has not played in the NFL since he parted ways with the 49ers after the 2017 season, Edwards points to the owners.

“Look, Roger Goodell is an eminently decent man,’’ he said. “In his heart, he’s a progressive guy. Now when you’re paid that kind of money to do that kind of representational job where you’ve got 32 substantially independent corporations that you’re supposed to guide in the direction that’s in the best interest of the game, all of that’s a tough call.

“Roger, I think, is making an earnest effort to not just be on the right side of history, but to maintain some reasonable credibility in the locker room of the NFL.’’

Push and shove progress?

On May 29, 2010, during a commencement ceremony at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, Goodell and his four brothers accepted an honorary doctorate in the name of their late father, Charles E. Goodell.

As a U.S. Senator from New York from 1968 to 1970, Charles Goodell defied then-President Richard Nixon and the Republican establishment by opposing the Vietnam War and writing legislation to end it. He marched arm-in-arm with Coretta Scott King during one anti-war protest.

As Roger Goodell’s brothers took their seats on the dais inside the Tsongas Center on UMass-Lowell’s campus, the NFL commissioner headed for the lectern and pulled out his speech. “We are proud of his accomplishments and his legacy,’’ Roger Goodell said, “having the courage to stick to his principles and do what’s right regardless of the consequences.’’

The anti-Vietnam position cost Charles Goodell his political career in 1970 when the Republican establishment punished him for what it considered betrayal.

“My father initially supported the war in Vietnam,’’ Roger Goodell told the students at UMass-Lowell. “He always supported our troops. … but his views on the Vietnam War evolved and eventually changed because he listened.’’

Michael C. Smith, a former aide to Sen. Goodell, called the speech “stirring’’ and said he was especially impressed by Roger Goodell’s explanation of his decision-making process.

Step One: Get good information.

Step Two: Listen.

Step Three: Resist the temptation to make premature decisions and be open to changing your position.

“It made a tremendous impact on me,’’ Smith said. “As a result of that, I was a little bit surprised and disappointed by the way the NFL responded to some of the domestic abuse issues, and a little surprised at Roger’s own handling of publicly addressing the issues wasn’t as skillful as I’d often seen him in more  private moments.

“But I’ve come to really appreciate and understand what he’s doing with highly sensitive, public issues on behalf of the league and the owners whose interests he’s required to observe and protect. That it’s a very complicated process. But I continue to believe his personal instincts are very sound, and I think and hope that these kind of consensus that’s emerging publicly on the matters of race now will give him enough latitude to do what I believe is very much in his heart.’’

Richard Lapchick, an expert on diversity in sport, suggested he knows what’s in Roger Goodell’s heart when it comes to race.

In 2002, Lapchick said, he worked with the late attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. and attorney Cyrus Mehri to threaten legal action unless the league did more to add minorities to the head coaching ranks and front office positions of authority.

In response, the NFL developed the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching vacancies. But Lapchick said the league stopped cooperating with him on annual report cards that assess hiring practices of people of color and women in the NFL, other major professional sports and college athletics.

Two weeks after Goodell was chosen to be NFL commissioner in 2006, Lapchick said, Goodell reached out to him and reopened the door for cooperation on the report cards.

“And then I’ll always remember meeting him for the first time in his office as commissioner,’’ Lapchick said.

Lapchick said he talked about his father, Joe, who as coach of the New York Knicks faced hostility in 1950 after signing Nat “Sweetwater’’ Clifton, one of the NBA’s first Black players. Goodell talked about his own father’s accomplishments, said Lapchick, who has awarded Goodell high marks in the annual for promoting diversity and inclusion at the NFL’s headquarters.

“We’ve had disagreements over the years about certain things,’’ Lapchick said. “I think he made a mistake not supporting Kaepernick from the beginning, but a lot of people wouldn’t be apologizing and saying he was wrong in a position of authority like that as he has done most recently. And I believe when he did those things it was totally genuine.

“All of my interactions and what I’ve read make me believe that he’s genuine about this issue.’’

But what should the skeptics and critics believe about Roger Goodell, son of a man who lost his political career because he stood by his principles?

Goodell’s current contract expires in 2024. If push comes to shove over the NFL’s becoming more progressive on racial justice issues, is he willing to push and shove as hard as his father did as a U.S. Senator and risk an early exit?

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