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NFL chief huddles up in a tough year

By Geoff Colvin, senior editor at large
September 18, 2008: 9:12 AM EDT

Goodell: The strategy is to create a network where we can give football fans more football 24 hours a day, seven days a week. No other network can do that; they have other obligations. We have a dispute with the cable operators. Our view is that this should be available to the broadest possible audience, and we are not going to go into a sports tier [for which viewers must pay extra, as the cable operators want]. We're patient. This is long term for us. In the meantime it's unfortunate, because consumers are missing out on a great product.

Fortune: Do you worry about maintaining the relevance of the product? A lot of your target audience, especially young men, play video football, which takes minutes rather than three hours. Can the old-fashioned, physical, on-the-field football game stay relevant to that audience?

Goodell: The game of football on the field has never been healthier, and we focus a lot of our energy on that. Football being popular at the PeeWee level, the high school level, the college level, is all good for us, so we work very closely to make sure it stays healthy on all those levels. But we also work to let people experience football any way they wish. So if you want to play the game, that's terrific. If you want to do it on a computer, great. You want to play fantasy football, that's terrific for us.

Fortune: Earlier this year the team owners voted to opt out of the collective-bargaining agreement with the players. When do you start working on a new agreement, and how big a factor is the untimely death of Gene Upshaw, who was the president of the union?

Goodell: Gene Upshaw's leadership will be missed, obviously. But we all understand we have to continue to grow the game, and that's better done as a partner, not through labor disputes. We'll find a way to do that, but it has to work for the players, for the NFL owners, and for the fans.

If the agreement expires without a new one in place, the salary cap disappears for the 2010 season. Gene Upshaw had said that if that happened, the players would never agree to having a cap reinstated. That sounds like a potentially huge conflict between the players and the owners.

A lot of things are said in anticipation of negotiations. The cap has been useful to grow the game; free agency has been also. These things are better resolved at the table. I'm not much for rhetoric. The cap has been beneficial for everybody, but it's not the only system that can be successful.

Fortune: Some NFL experts are speculating on the possibility of a lockout. What are the odds of that?

Goodell: I don't know the odds, but that's three years off. We have the 2008, 2009, and 2010 season before any lockout could even occur. Our job is to get to work, and that's one of the reasons the owners terminated the deal - because it wasn't working for them and to signal that we need to start working on that new agreement right now.

Fortune: Rookies have been getting huge contracts. The top pick in this year's draft, Jake Long, signed a five-year contract for $57.5 million, which is almost as large as the last contract signed by Tom Brady, one of the great quarterbacks in NFL history. Is that a problem, or is it just the free market at work?

Goodell: I think it's a problem for this reason: I don't know many industries where you come in and you're paid higher than the individuals who have performed within that industry. That's inconsistent with the way the game is played. It's all about performance on the field, and I think the veterans who have performed at a high level deserve the bulk of the money. I have nothing against Jake Long - he's a great young man and a great player - but he hasn't played [much] in the NFL. It's difficult to support a system where players who haven't performed are rewarded at such high levels.

Fortune: Is there a solution?

Goodell: Yes, other sports are using systems with rookie wage scales and caps on rookie salaries. Our issue is not necessarily to save money; it's to have the money go to those who perform. The salary cap is close to $120 million [per team] this year, and you want that money to go to the players who have performed.

Fortune: The NFL has long had one of the strictest drug-testing policies in professional sports, but the science continually advances. What are you doing to keep up with that and maintain the reputation of the players and the league?

Goodell: Our drug program has had great support from the players because they want to make sure they're above suspicion. It's also important from a health standpoint that players are not forced to take these drugs. That was the visionary leadership of Gene Upshaw, who saw that his players would be forced to take performance-enhancing drugs if others were using them. Every year we look at our program to see how we can improve it. You always have people trying to beat the system.

Fortune: What's the current rule on human growth hormone?

Goodell: It's impermissible in the league. The problem is, there's no drug test that will detect it that is widely available and can be used on a broad basis. We are funding research to discover that. But part of this is education too. Players need to understand the dangers of using these kinds of drugs, and I think they're starting to get that message.

Fortune: Your job is unusual in that you're the boss, but you also have 32 bosses, the team owners, most of whom are zillionaires who are not shy about sharing their views. How do you manage them?

Goodell: Actually, I look at that as a positive. We have 32 franchises, and we have to get 24 votes to approve labor contracts, approve media contracts, and act on other major issues. That's a challenge. On the other hand, because our owners bring such an interesting perspective and great business experience, that helps us make better decisions. If we can convince 24 owners that that's a smart and intelligent direction to move in, we're most likely going to be successful. There have been many times where we couldn't get 24 votes, and it proved to be a benefit.

Fortune: You told me earlier that you clearly remember becoming a fan of NFL football at age 6. I expected you to say you were a fan of Bart Starr or Johnny Unitas, but you said Pete Rozelle, NFL commissioner at the time. I've never before encountered someone who as a little boy became a big fan of the commissioner.

Goodell: You don't think there are fans of Roger Goodell out there at 6 years old? I'm sure there are, but I haven't met them yet.

Fortune: Neither have I, by the way. Anyway, why were you such a fan of the commissioner?

Goodell: I actually was a big fan of Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts at a young age. But I just admired the way Pete Rozelle did things. I found the way he led the growth of the NFL, the decisions he made, just very intriguing. I followed everything he did. I analyzed it, I tried to understand why he did what he did. And then I thought about what I would do in those circumstances. I think he's the gold standard of commissioners. He will always be my gold standard, I can tell you that.  To top of page

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