Faces of Football:
On player safety and TV ratings, on the quality of officiating and quality of play, Roger Goodell countered SI’s findings at almost every turn with a mostly positive assessment, disagreeing largely with the dozens of Americans who deemed this a strange moment in football’s history. (He does, at least, admit: “I don’t sleep much.” Wonder what’s keeping him up.) Here’s what the face of Football in America had to say about the game and where his league is taking it.
Football is . . . I can’t capture football in one word. We use the phrase Football is family. But it means so much to so many different people for so many different reasons. Some people love the competition. Some people love the physical contact. Some people love the pageantry. Some love the social aspect of it. Some like to watch the commercials. Some love the entertainers. Some like the strategy. That’s what’s great about the game: It has something for everybody.
Football can be an escape from everyday life. We hear that a lot: I want to come and enjoy the game, enjoy the experience and get away from my daily troubles, whether that’s the election or something else. [In baseball] I thought the Cubs winning the World Series after 108 years—that went well beyond sports. It was a feel-good moment that our country needed, frankly.
The lessons I learned from playing the game for nine years still stay with me—lessons about perseverance, teamwork, how to work together and how to achieve something bigger than yourself. But people also get a great deal from engaging with the game as fans. I was at [the Giants’ MetLife] Stadium last weekend, out in the parking lot at two different tailgate parties. It’s a very social experience. When they get in the stadium they’re with another set of fans, high-fiving one another, getting to know one another. It doesn’t matter what your background is, your race, your income.
Fans, they’ll tell you what they like about [football]. Our job is to listen and be responsive in a way we think is in the best interest of the game long term. We understand our responsibility to the game now, but we focus on: How do we make sure the game stays strong for the long term?
The fans are more interested in football [than player safety and activism]. We are the ones who make safety a priority. Fans support that because they want to see their players play. They want to know that they’re being taken care of. That we’re giving them the proper medical attention. We’re doing what we can to prevent injuries. Most fans—and I have this conversation with them all the time—want to see the players on the field. That and they want to see their team playing at the highest level. They want to see both. And that’s what we try to deliver: Make the game as safe as possible but allow players to perform at the highest levels.
Tom Coughlin [a senior advisor to NFL football operations] sat here with me yesterday and we went through a list of questions we’re sharing with our coaches: What do we need to look at next? What do we change? I think the NFL is unique in that way. We’re not afraid of reinventing ourselves every year. There are very few sports I know of that would change six or seven rules in a year. That’s not unusual for us.
Here’s a change: How do we reduce what I refer to as “dead time”—the time when there’s no action. Fans don’t want just shorter games, they want more action. So how do we take that time when we have an instant replay issue and make that quicker? Should we bring a tablet to the sideline and show the referee? Could we do the announcements differently? Faster? Do we do the challenges differently? If you can carve off 15 seconds of dead time in 10 different places, that’s a pretty significant amount of time.
Our commercialization is another example [of something that could change]. Do we keep the same TV commercial formats we’ve had for decades? Should it still be a 2:20 commercial break? Maybe we should think about [something] less intrusive. John Madden and I talk about that. A game gets great, you get fans into the game—you don’t want to take them away from it.
Officiating is obviously a huge responsibility we have to our players and our coaches and our clubs, and our fans. We’re looking at and experimenting with an eighth official. We negotiated in our collective bargaining agreement [in 2012] so we could have up to 16 full-time officials. We think that [would have been] a positive change. And we were disappointed when they threw in some restrictions that prevented us from doing that. But those are the kinds of things we want to do. Separately, I don’t believe that having full-time officials is necessarily going to prevent mistakes. Coaches, players, officials, commissioners—they all make mistakes.
People look at us as if the NFL should have a higher standard than anybody else. So we try to meet that. We don’t complain about it. We meet it. And try to exceed it.
There are still the same number of folks—maybe even slightly higher—actually watching football. The question is, Are they watching it as long? A lot of things affect that: Competitiveness of the game, alternative viewing—we’ve gone up against two presidential debates. You have to look at the long-term issues, the changing media landscape, how people are engaging differently, particularly the younger generation. Are they watching more highlights? Are they looking at RedZone? We’re trying to stay ahead of those things. That’s why we did the Yahoo game last year. We’re looking at the length of the game, the pace of the game, the stoppages in the game; how do we bring commercialization into the game or take it out—and do it in a way that’s least intrusive. . . .
People have been talking about [TV ratings] for decades. I think they’re less significant to a lot of people, particularly with the changes in advertising, people going digital. I think Nielsen ratings are one aspect of [a bigger picture], but for a long time people have questioned that as a sole focus for how you evaluate your audience.
The competition, the quality of play in the league, has never been better. The average margin of victory has not been closer since 1932, back when they were probably averaging 20 points a game. We’re now averaging 45 or 46. That, plus the number of penalties—those are all important factors. We have a list of 50 of those things we look at on a weekly basis. We study them and it leads to what the Competition Committee focuses on.
The biggest observation when I go to the London games is the number of jerseys they all wear—they wear jerseys from every team. They come because they love the game and they have a passion for their team. Even if their team isn’t playing, they’re there. We had three [London] games this year; we’re looking at four. Our ratings there continue to do incredibly well. Even if they don’t truly understand it, they want to understand. Take the first NFL game in Japan for example. We got to the two-minute warning and the game was tied. We explained [the overtime procedure] to them and they started clapping, as if it was an encore we were doing specifically for them. They didn’t truly understand the game. Now they cheer at the appropriate times.
We don’t reach the mountaintop and say, We’re done. Our change is constant. We do everything we can to make the game safer. We do what we can to grow the game, to make it more entertaining. We have to adapt to what happens around us.