Mariotti: In spite of bumbling Goodell, NFL still thrives amid scandal, chaos

He may be more embattled and disparaged than the President of the United States, which doesn’t speak well for our nation’s collective over-devotion to football. Roger Goodell is in San Francisco this week for the NFL owners’ meetings with a professional image hopelessly tarnished, his credibility in irreparable ruin after a series of erratic and often mind-boggling disciplinary decisions. He sits atop one of the most prospering industries in the history of this land, yet he has all the aplomb of Barney Rubble, making it miraculous that his Teflon-coated domain continues to lure our interest like no other form of American entertainment.

You get the feeling Goodell could threaten to blow up the planet, his thumb pressed on the red button, and that 202 million unique viewers — representing 80 percent of all TV homes — still would watch NFL games and account for 45 of the 50 most-watched shows during the fall season. That’s what many commentators miss in their relentless bashings and torchings of Goodell.

Yes, he is an idiot, and, yes, some of his owners are rogues. Yet people keep watching in increasingly record numbers, with the sport’s popularity somehow booming and growing despite a succession of alarming stories — a life-and-death concussion crisis, the murder conviction of Aaron Hernandez, a domestic-violence plague centered around Ray Rice, the child-beating case of Adrian Peterson and, now, another cheating-and-lying scam involving the cheating-and-lying New England Patriots that has ensnared their formerly golden hero, Tom Brady — that seemingly would make reasonable, intelligent people repel in droves.

It simply doesn’t matter that the commissioner is an idiot, that the so-called NFL “shield” he fails to protect now looks like a ravaged bottle cap. The league is a $12-billion-a-year monster, aiming for more than $25 billion in annual revenues by 2025. He keeps making an astronomical annual salary, topping out at $44.2 million. Corporate sponsors have stuck by the league through all the immoral and unethical episodes. Fans seem more concerned about their fantasy-team rosters than murder and domestic abuse. Bill Simmons, the sportswriter who described Goodell as “a liar,” was fired by ESPN.

Is it any wonder Goodell always finds time to smile, despite the storms around him?

And isn’t it true that we can’t spell Goodell without G-O-D?

His handling of the league’s perpetual scandals has become a sport in and of itself. With the Super Bowl 50 circus approaching, the Bay Area will witness the Goodellian spectacle starting Tuesday, when the owners arrive at a downtown hotel for two days of politicking and confabbing. The beloved Warriors open the NBA Western Conference finals Tuesday night against the very beatable Houston Rockets — pause here to laugh about the choking-dog Clippers — meaning local media and fans will be focused on Oracle Arena. But Goodell and the NFL owners will be discussing the decaying, obsolete stadium next door, Coliseum, and how it impacts what now looms as the probable departure of the Raiders to a new base in southern California.

Face facts, folks: Beyond a half-billion-dollar pot pledged by the NFL and Raiders owner Mark Davis, the city of Oakland and Alameda County don't have the resources to help build a new stadium that will cost at least $1 billion. The city and county have enough problems to ask voters to approve public money. The Coliseum City idea looks dubious at best; as the Examiner’s Thom Fain reports, real-estate mogul Floyd Kephart has yet to produce financing details that would keep the Raiders and A’s in a pie-in-the-sky complex. Davis is spending considerable time in the Los Angeles suburb of Carson, where he and the San Diego Chargers — they’re supposed to be heated rivals, right? — are collaborating on a proposed, privately financed $1.7-billion stadium by the 405 freeway.

Do not consider Carson as an idle threat. It’s as real as a moving van, from unanimous approval of the project by city council to a 120-foot tower that, for Raiders games, will honor the team’s late owner, Al Davis, with a burning flame. Goodell and the owners will hear from the Raiders and Chargers as well as St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke, who is designing a stadium project on land he purchased in Inglewood with the possibility of moving his team there. At long last, L.A. should be getting an NFL franchise if not two, and of the three teams in this race, the Raiders are least likely to stay in their current home. If it’s embarrassing that Mark Davis has to piggyback another team’s project — if not the Chargers, then Kroenke’s — it’s heartening to think the Raiders wouldn’t have to play in a wastedump much longer. Sorry, Black Hole people, but the Coliseum is a dump. Anyone who cares about the Raiders knows they deserve a 21st-century facility, despite their villainous past. They are trying to transform their image — Derek Carr to Amari Cooper, touchdown after touchdown — and they can’t do so in the Coliseum. About 15 miles away, Goodell and the owners will be informed why the Oakland situation is hopeless, meaning the seeds for the team’s departure could be planted, in a sad coincidence, in downtown San Francisco.

Oakland should feel fortunate simply to keep the A’s, horrible as they are this season in a slumber dating back to — though Billy Beane won’t acknowledge it — the Yoenis Cespedes deal. In that 81 regular-season home baseball dates makes more sense for the city than an assured 10 annual home dates for the Raiders, and considering the A’s never left town when the Raiders did, the smartest conclusion is that the A’s stay where they are, beside the advantageous BART stop, in a new ballpark that restores the outfield backdrop of the beautiful Oakland hills. The Raiders need new revenue streams that wouldn’t be possible at Levi’s Stadium, owned and controlled by the 49ers. They need a new start in a new city, and it may as well be on familiar ground somewhere in L.A. Davis isn’t well-heeled like many of the billionaires in the meetings rooms this week. He needs help elsewhere.

Now more than ever, an NFL franchise is pure gold. If tech still is vulnerable to a crash, owning a franchise in this league constitutes some of the headiest ground in U.S. business. As Goodell and his employers continue to dodge crises, it’s clear that the state of the NFL public-relations brand is irrelevant if the public remains fascinated by the product. If anything, the scandals only have raised interest levels in the sport by creating intense water-cooler and talk-radio discussions.

Deflategate, for instance. The best theater this week, no doubt: watching Patriots owner and major league power-player Bob Kraft, heretofore known as Goodell’s biggest ownership supporter and public defender during the Rice backlash, encounter the commissioner in the hallways. With his decision to suspend Brady for four games and dock the Patriots two draft picks and $1 million, Goodell essentially branded Kraft’s franchise — winner of four Super Bowls over 13 years, but also the guilty party in coach Bill Belichick’s Spygate fiasco — as a deceitful, phony, repeat-offending dynasty in the wake of the Ted Wells report.

“We relied on the critical importance of protecting the integrity of the game and the thoroughness and independence of the Wells report,” Goodell said.

Integrity of the game?

Oh, how we could lambaste Goodell for how he has damaged the integrity of the game. Remember when he arrived as commissioner in 2006 and vowed to protect the shield with his personal conduct policy? He wielded a hammer early, particularly with Michael Vick’s two-year suspension for his role in a dogfighting ring, And he swung it mightily in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal, suspending coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for a season, among other penalties, after ruling the Saints had discussed maiming opponents for financial rewards.

But his original two-game suspension for Rice exposed him as a disturbing example of being tone-deaf to a extremely serious issue. When the videotape surfaced of Rice cold-cocking his eventual wife in an elevator, Goodell was vague in what he knew and when, making him look deceitful, clueless or, perhaps, a bit of both. Suddenly, we asked whether he was fit to preside over a league in which players and coaches relentlessly commit so many wrongful acts — murder, domestic violence, child abuse, bounties, bullying, drugs, videotaping, gambling, pumped-in crowd noise, dogfighting and, now, football doctoring — as the only commissioner in the four major sports not to have a law degree. It’s horrifying enough that Goodell would wrist-slap Rice for two games when smoking weed can get you four games. But even now, in relation to the integrity of competition, does it make sense to suspend Brady only four games for directly tampering footballs before an AFC title game when Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer got the same suspension for simply sending texts to team personnel during a regular-season game?

Did Goodell consider forcing the Patriots to vacate their fourth Super Bowl trophy? In the context of the Farmer ruling, he should have.

All of which makes for better conversational fodder than the games themselves, which are pretty damned good. One topic this week will be why the league — duh — doesn’t keep game footballs in its possession until kickoff. Why should the Patriots even have the balls long enough to manicure them all week to Brady’s specifications, then have some doofus known as the “deflator” sneak into a bathroom with the balls?

As usual, The Happy Idiot will figure this out … long after the damage has been done.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at Read his website at

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