It seems impossible to remember this, but Roger Goodell was once a hero in the city of New Orleans.
Well, maybe not a hero, but he was loved in certain, knowing pockets of the city for what he did in keeping the Saints in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (and the man-made issues related to disaster preparedness) destroyed much of the city in 2005. Goodell, then acting as the COO and the No. 2 man in the NFL behind Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, led the charge within the league to ensure that the team remained in New Orleans and was not moved to San Antonio, as was reportedly being considered strongly by Saints owner Tom Benson.
Goodell argued passionately on behalf of the city of New Orleans, then led the charge within the league to re-open the Superdome, working hand-in-hand with the Superdome staff to get the building ready for fans just a year after it had been turned into a nightmarish refuge for people stranded in the city after the storm. Few in the league cared as much as Goodell did. He was committed to keeping the NFL in NOLA, and when plenty of other people within the league probably thought it was too much work, or impossible, and the team should just move to San Antonio, he remained steadfast.
When Steve Gleason blocked the punt on that first night back in the Dome, and football was well and truly back in New Orleans, Goodell was watching, and could rightfully claim to have been a big part of what made that moment possible.
Then he went and screwed everything up.
First there was the Bountygate Scandal, still a sore spot for Saints fans. It was 2010 and Goodell, now Commissioner, and the NFL were reeling after multiple reports about CTE were being released. The Saints were coming off a 2009 Super Bowl win, and the following offseason an anonymous player reported that the Saints had implemented a “bounty” system during their playoff run, with players promised cash rewards for laying out big hits on opponents.
What could have been construed as an iffy motivation tactic or, perhaps, another indicator that the NFL was a sport built on violence, was instead taken by the league as a grand crime that needed a major inquiry and fitting punishment. Saints fans bellowed that it was unfair, and a somewhat cynical person could argue that the timing was a little suspect: The NFL was reeling from accusations that its game was too violent, and instead of reckoning with the sport and the damage it does to athletes’ brains, they instead launched a grand inquisition into one team rewarding players for big hits.
Like the Deflategate scandal for the Patriots, Goodell couldn’t seem to get out of his own way with Bountygate, setting up a seemingly arbitrary investigation process, switching up protocol when it suited him, then handing out a punishment based on … what was in his gut? It was everything bad you’d expect from an extralegal investigation, the sort of make-it-up-as-you-go bit of justice that led to fans losing their minds.
And then there was the non-pass interference call in the NFC Championship, a terrible non-call that contributed (somewhat) to the Saints not making another Super Bowl.
Goodell again seemed to stumble in the aftermath. The league toned down the rhetoric, then seemed to admit that a call was missed, then dismissed any ideas of reviewing the play or using a little-known rule to change the result, then fined the Rams’ player for the offending hit, even though he wasn’t penalized on the play (!?), another bizarre bit of blame-shifting that felt totally tone deaf and stupid.
New Orleans fans aren’t mad at Nickell Robey-Coleman for committing a penalty. Penalties happen all the time. New Orleans fans are mad that the penalty wasn’t called and they lost the game. Through it all, Goodell remained committed to a few things. 1) The result should stand. 2) This shouldn’t turn into a larger discussion of making plays like this reviewable. 3) Nothing comes before The Shield.
Goodell’s relationship with the city of New Orleans seems to underscore both what has made him great for the NFL and what has made him awful – a deep knowing sense within himself that he knows the right thing to do. When it came to keeping the Saints in New Orleans, Goodell wouldn’t budge, and he made the right call. When it came to Bountygate, he remained committed to the idea that the Saints should be punished for something, even when it didn’t make sense really, and balked when it turned into a larger discussion about the league and its damaging of players’ brains.
And when it comes to this non-PI call, he remains committed to the idea that this result should stand and it shouldn’t turn into a larger discussion about the league’s rules, and that nothing should threaten The Integrity of The Shield. (Please note sarcasm with that capitalization. Thank you.)
Goodell is steadfast, and when he’s in the right, it works well. When he’s not, and it doesn’t align with common sense or what fans want, it comes across as stubborn and silly. And its ruined what should be a wonderful relationship with the city of New Orleans.
The man who kept the Saints in New Orleans and helped re-open the Superdome is now hated, and he has no one to blame but himself.