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NFL Commissioner strikes the right tone

Adubato: Commissioner Roger Goodell has been a stand up guy.  Case in point was Goodell’s interview with NBC’s Bob Costas before last Sunday’s game between the Patriots and San Diego Chargers. 
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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently demonstrated the kind of solid and highly credible media performance that is lacking with corporate executives who are under significant pressure— particularly those in professional sports.  Goodell has faced a series of major scandals in the NFL, including the Michael Vick dog fighting debacle, Pacman Jones’ endless stream of criminal problems, and the New England Patriots/Bill Belichick “Videogate” cheating scandal that recently rocked the NFL. 

In every case, Commissioner Goodell has been a stand up guy. He didn’t duck any of these challenges. He made tough decisions and handed down stiff penalties. He didn’t wait to communicate, he was proactive, and when he got the opportunity to speak with the media on a very big national stage on NBC’s Sunday Night Football, he took every question and challenge head on. 

Case in point is Goodell’s interview with NBC’s Bob Costas before last Sunday’s game between the Patriots and San Diego Chargers. It was 7 ½ minutes of compelling television. Costas was on his game, asking very tough questions of Goodell, who didn’t even flinch. Goodell gets my vote as the “Top CEO Media Performer of the Year” by far.  He was cool, calm and under control at all times.  Costas, as tough of an interviewer that there is in sports, never threw Goodell off point.Goodell was not just disciplined and “on message”, he was candid and highly responsive. Consider a few examples:

  • Costas asked Goodell about the penalties and fines he handed out to the Patriots, including a $500,000 personal fine to Bill Belichick, $250,000 against the club, and a first round draft choice in next year’s draft if they make the playoffs (which is pretty much a lock). Costas cited NBC’s Cris Collinsworth’s commentary before the Goodell interview suggesting that Belichick should have been suspended for several games, particularly the next Jets game and the first playoff game. Without missing a beat, Goodell responded: “I don’t agree with that and I respect Cris a great deal. But, I don’t think that’s appropriate here. My job here, Bob, is to make sure that all 32 teams are operating within the same rules (and) on level playing field. That’s what I tried to do here with this penalty - is to make sure that all teams are playing by the same rules.”

Goodell’s answer was direct and straight forward, concise and to the point.  He didn’t get defensive and didn’t take any cheap shots at Cris Collinsworth.  His body language never changed, he never showed anger or frustration.  He respected Collinsworth’s opinion, but he simply disagreed. Goodell did what few media performers are able to do, which is to disagree without being disagreeable. Further, Goodell was prepared and disciplined enough in his several other responses to Costas to go back to his main message, which is that all 32 NFL teams must operate within the same rules. 

  • No matter what Costas asked Goodell, after the commissioner’s initial response, he found himself back to his main point. Some might call that spin but I call it great media communication. Someone as good as Costas is often able to bait sports executives and others into saying stupid things they wish would never come out of their mouths.  That’s because most people, when dealing with the media, have absolutely no game plan, or if they do, they don’t have the discipline or awareness to stick with that regardless of the situation.  Roger Goodell did, and it paid off. 
  • Later in the NBC interview, Bob Costas pressed Roger Goodell by saying there was sentiment that he was easier on Coach Belichick than on players, like Pacman Jones and Michael Vick. Again, Goodell never lost his cool.  He just responded; “I understand this job’s going to come with criticism, Bob. I heard you earlier in the week and Peter King earlier in the week talking about a second-round draft choice being an extremely strong statement. I understand that and people are going to have a difference of opinions. I listened today and I heard a lot of people who thought it was too strong. That’s part of my job. What I have to do is make sure that I maintain the integrity of the NFL and allowing each team to be on the field playing by the same rules is a critical point for me.” 
    Goodell once again relates back to his main message.  Not ignoring the question, but not being a slave to it either.  He didn’t get testy about the criticism; he just said it was part of the job. Further he reminded Costas that the NBC broadcaster himself said that the commissioner’s penalty was “an extremely strong statement.” That technique takes some steam out of an interviewer, even one as tough as Bob Costas. 

What I really like about Roger Goodell is that unlike Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig (who has bumbled his way with his eyes closed through the ongoing steroid scandals involving sluggers like Barry Bonds and previously Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa), or the lame executives running Madison Square Garden (who seem to condone and be in denial about the blatantly sexist and racist comments made by New York Knick’s General Manager and Head Coach Isiah Thomas), Goodell doesn’t take any crap. He’s not afraid to make tough decisions, even when it comes to icons and heroes in his sport like Bill Belichick. 

Such confidence and strong leadership also requires that an executive be able to perform well when dealing with the media under heavy pressure. That’s what Roger Goodell did on Sunday night with Bob Costas. 

Anyone, be it a sports executive, a CEO of a major corporation, a school principal, or a university president can learn an awful lot watching those 7 ½ minutes of Roger Goodell taking everything Bob Costas threw at him and standing tall by being candid, forth right, and highly prepared. 

In this instance, the media was Roger Goodell’s friend. Not because it was Costas’ intent, but because of Roger Goodell’s performance. 

Sometimes those of us in the media who are so critical of those we interview and report on have to take our hats off and say job well done. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell deserves just that. 

Write to Steve Adubato at