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NFL Chief Caught Between Bad Calls and Owners’ Hard Line

When Roger Goodell became the commissioner of the National Football League in 2006, he made protecting certain aspects of the sport’s good name his consuming aim. He was concerned with the fan experience at stadiums as well as the behavior of players in bars. Goodell wanted a league populated by upstanding citizens who provided captivating entertainment while, not incidentally, generating great business, too.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell
Al Messerschmidt | Getty Images Sport
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell

To that end, Goodell has risked lawsuits over his tough punishments for a bounty scandal; he has suspended or otherwise disciplined some of the N.F.L.’s most popular players; and he brokered the deal that ended the long, bitter lockout of the league’s players last year.

Today Goodell is overseeing a remarkable fiasco, one that, to a considerable degree, is of the league’s own making: the embarrassment of replacement officials. That the lockout of the experienced and unionized officials has lingered, even as the game’s reputation has been stained, suggests that in a 21st century N.F.L., the commissioner’s power is more nuanced than in the past.

The lockout was sought and is now being enforced by the owners, some of them hard-line, deep-pocketed businessmen with limited N.F.L. roots and an earned taste for having things their own way, whatever the cost.

The replacement embarrassment — games policed by underqualified officials who have served in an emergency role — reached its zenith Monday night when a blown call, by the league’s own carefully worded admission, cost the Green Bay Packers a victory against the Seattle Seahawks on national television.

The increasing upset on Tuesday — among fans, players and coaches — grew to include President Obama, who called the outcome of Monday’s game “terrible.”

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers said in an ESPN radio appearance Tuesday, “The game is being tarnished by an N.F.L. who obviously cares more about saving some money than having the integrity of the game diminished.”

Those close to Goodell say he is concerned about the mistakes being made game after game. While Goodell is the most powerful commissioner in American sports, he is ultimately answerable to the owners of 32 teams. And as much as Monday’s game would seem to have put a spotlight on the need for a settlement — the sides negotiated on Tuesday, as they had for the past several days — it might actually have complicated matters for Goodell, who is personally involved in the talks.

Even some owners acknowledge that Goodell is in the difficult position of balancing the interests of his constituents. The league that Goodell came up in, working for the commissioners Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue and many owners who had been in place well before the league boomed, is now populated by a disparate group of businessmen. Some of them have had their teams in their families for generations. Others are self-made successes in other fields. Many of them, regardless of background, are used to taking tough positions and not capitulating. They are very used to getting what they want, and they do not like being pushed around.

But the officials’ union says it would cost the N.F.L. just $3.2 million annually if the league met all of the demands, a tiny fraction of the N.F.L.’s $9 billion in annual revenue.

The league wants a deal that not only eliminates pensions for officials, to be replaced by 401(k)’s, but also gives the league flexibility to replace the officials it believes are underperforming. It is, the league has said, part of Goodell’s plan to improve officiating for the long term, to reduce the bad calls that even regular officials make. In a repeat of the players’ lockout last year, those who know the commissioner said, Goodell entered this lockout in June expecting criticism, but willing to take the short-term pain in order to get the right agreement.

The players’ lockout ended when Goodell, navigating between moderate owners reluctant to miss games and hard-liners willing to shut down for the season, forged a 10-year agreement with players that was a huge financial victory for the league while keeping the season intact.

On Tuesday, the players union sent a letter to the owners, criticizing Goodell’s handling of the lockout. “Your decision to lock out officials with more than 1,500 years of collective N.F.L. experience has led to a deterioration of order, safety and integrity,” the letter said. “This affirmative decision has not only resulted in poor calls, missed calls and bad game management, but the combination of those deficiencies will only continue to jeopardize player health and safety and the integrity of the game that has taken decades to build.”

Backlash fears

The concern Tuesday was that the immense backlash after the Packers’ loss would harden the position of the officials’ union — it wants to maintain the pension for current officials and is resisting adding more officials, which could reduce the current officials’ pay and weaken their job security. But it might also highlight the differences among owners, complicating Goodell’s task. Some, the thinking goes, might dig in, fearful that if the N.F.L. makes a deal in the coming days, it will appear that Goodell surrendered to public pressure. During the negotiations, some owners have referred to the regular officials, who had long been convinced that the failure of replacements would swing leverage their way, as “holding the league hostage” to their demands.

But other owners want a deal soon, because they are so troubled by the damage they believe is being done to the game by the botched calls. On Tuesday night a person briefed on the negotiations said owners were dug in and resistant to more compromise.

It is Goodell’s job to maneuver between those disparate camps, while also taking the long view of the league’s future. While he cannot afford to let the integrity of competition be sullied by substandard officiating — some owners vehemently deny that has happened, even now — the league is also aware that every other group, from television partners to players to sponsors, is watching the negotiation closely. If the league is seen as giving in, owners fear it could change the dynamics of other negotiations in the future. And that, ultimately, could jeopardize their winning streak in business matters.

On Tuesday, the N.F.L. released a statement admitting that officials had missed a critical pass-interference call that would have sealed the victory for the Packers. To everyone except the Packers, though, the details are almost beside the point. Mistaken rulings by regular officials have affected final scores before, and the league has nimbly moved on. The difference in those cases was that fans, players and coaches knew it was a mistake and did not think that the league had allowed incompetence to determine games in the name of a more favorable business deal.

That is what the N.F.L. has on its hands now, the ugly perception that its commissioner is willing to sacrifice the quality and integrity of the competition as long as the bottom line is favorable. The hope among some owners Tuesday was that a deal could be struck by the end of this week or early next week. Goodell may be in a tough spot now, trying to corral strong-willed owners whose positions are not always in step. But he will have a much more difficult time restoring the shine to his — and the league’s — image if he fails.

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