Roger Goodell Will Again Use Power In Battle With Deshaun Watson

To those who know NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson is headed for a one-year suspension.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement that the NFL notified the NFL Players Association on Wednesday that it is appealing the six-game suspension for Watson. Pursuant to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, that appeal will be heard by Goodell or someone he appoints.

This is the beginning of an action that is almost sure to end up with Watson being suspended for the 2022 season. The league had been pushing for a one-year suspension prior to the announcement of a six-game suspension by Judge Sue L. Robinson on Monday.

This was a predictable outcome to those who know Goodell. One source even chuckled lightly at what he perceived as a rhetorical question about what Goodell would do. 

“You know Roger, he hates results like this, especially when he thinks he has been lied to,” said the source, who has known Goodell for more than 25 years, long before Goodell became commissioner in 2006. “When (Robinson) said in her ruling that she thought Watson lied and wasn’t remorseful, that told me everything about where this is going.”

That theme has played out time and again in the eyes of people who know Goodell. In 2012, when Goodell handed out penalties in the New Orleans Bountygate scandal, Goodell was incredibly harsh with head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. He suspended them, respectively, for a full season and indefinitely.

Roger Goodell
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. (Getty Images)

Interestingly, assistant coach Joe Vitt only received a six-game suspension. Vitt had been in the middle of the worst parts of the scandal, including keeping a ledger of the bounties to be paid.

“When Joe went in to meet with Roger, (Vitt) told him the entire story and Roger listened while Joe made his case,” said attorney David Cornwell, who represented Vitt. “In the end, Roger thought Vitt was wrong, but he also thought Vitt told him the truth. That mattered a lot.”

Another source close to Goodell took it a step further. The source described how Goodell also believes in his personal role in defending the honor of the league, where he has spent his entire working life. The other source recalled Goodell’s reaction when he once suggested the commissioner turn over discipline to a third party so Goodell wouldn’t take so much criticism.

“He got so mad at me I thought he was going to jump across the table,” the source said with a chuckle. “I never brought that up again.”

Finally, there is Goodell’s long history of using leverage to get whatever he or his bosses (the NFL owners) want. In the span of 16 years, Goodell has helped make himself and the owners richer than they ever imagined. It has been reported that Goodell made a combined $128 million in the 2020 and 2021 seasons. That’s an average of $64 million a year.

That salary is locked in step with the increased wealth of the owners. In 2011, the average NFL team was valued at $1 billion. In just 11 years, that average value has more than quadrupled with the recent sale of the Denver Broncos for $4.65 billion. The Broncos have consistently been ranked as a mid-tier team in terms of franchise value.

That wealth is built on Roger Goodell hammering out agreements by using the power of the NFL.

Former Turner Broadcast President David Levy said years ago, “Roger has the power and makes it clear that he knows it.”

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Another media executive remembered a particularly rough negotiation.

“They came to us with a proposal on a new contract. We looked at it, took a couple of weeks to analyze it and came back with some concessions on our part and some requests for some concessions by them,” the executive said. “Roger said: ‘You have our offer. If you don’t take it, it’s just going to get worse.’ There’s no dealing with him if he has the leverage. He just demands.”

When you bring that back to the Watson situation, it’s clear to anyone that, barring some miracle change of heart, Watson is headed for an appeal that will be required, heard and adjudicated by Goodell. For all the talk about the new system that was negotiated between the league and the NFLPA about player discipline, Goodell has the final say.

Furthermore, the statement made by the NFLPA on Sunday when it said it would live by Robinson’s decision was viewed in two ways by the sources close to Goodell. One said the union was daring Goodell to live with the decision. The other thought the union was begging Goodell to live with the decision.

“Either way, I don’t think it works because Roger doesn’t respect the union or De Smith. He plays nice with them only to the extent he has to,” a source said.

In 2011, when the union and Smith gave Goodell the full authority to handle player discipline in Article 46 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, that was the end of any hope for Goodell to consider the feelings of the union.

Or as one source said: “Again, it’s just about power. If Roger has it, he’s going to use it.”

Written by Jason Cole

Jason Cole has covered or written about pro football since 1992. He is one of 49 selectors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and has served as a selector since 2013. Cole has worked for publications such as Bleacher Report, Yahoo! Sports, The Miami Herald, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and started his career with the Peninsula Times-Tribune in Palo Alto. Cole’s five-year investigation of Reggie Bush and the University of Southern California resulted in Bush becoming the only player to ever relinquish his Heisman Trophy and USC losing its 2004 national championship.

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