Grant Engle | Staff Writer
Lifelong Chautauquan Roger Goodell received a rousing applause when he was introduced in front of a near-capacity crowd in the Amphitheater Wednesday morning.
The National Football League commissioner was joined by Mike Slive, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, in a discussion about Week Seven’s morning lecture theme, “The Ethics of Cheating.” NBC News correspondent Luke Russert moderated the discussion.
Before the lecture, Goodell held a small press conference with local media where he fielded questions about the possible relocation of the Buffalo Bills, the sale of the Cleveland Browns and his return to the Institution.
“Chautauqua has had a profound impact on me,” Goodell said. “It’s not just the place — it’s the people. You can learn, you can compete, and you have relationships that last a lifetime. I can’t think of a better place to grow up. My family and I were fortunate to be here.”
Two of the most influential commissioners in sports discussed player safety, off-the-field incidents and, much to the delight of the crowd, the Bills.
Russert jumped right into a difficult line of questioning with Goodell when he asked about the stiff penalties rendered against the New Orleans Saints compared to the sanctions against the New England Patriots in 2007.
Earlier this year, the NFL levied suspensions against Saints coaches and players for running a “bounty” program that rewarded players for injuring opponents. The New England Patriots were fined $250,000 and lost a 2008 first-round draft pick for recording other teams’ signals during practice.
Goodell said a program paying players to injure opponents “without question” deserved a harsher punishment than signal stealing, because one of the key components of his job is to ensure player safety. He defended his year-long suspension of Saints head coach Sean Payton for his role in the bounty program.
“This was a serious infraction of our rules,” Goodell said. “That’s unacceptable. As a head coach, you are responsible for what goes on and how your team plays the game.”
When the conversation shifted from cheating in the NFL to other issues concerning student-athletes, Russert asked Slive about the below-average graduation rates of some SEC schools.
Slive, former athletic director of Cornell University, said not all great athletes have had the opportunity to get a good education before entering college and that the SEC has a responsibility to help “bright students” who went through poor school systems catch up to their peers.
“Some of our early education, K-12, isn’t as stellar as we’d want it to be,” Slive said. “I like to think about us as a league of opportunity.”
On the topic of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, Russert asked Goodell how confident he is that there is is not rampant PED use in the NFL.
Goodell said he could not guarantee players are not using human growth hormone — HGH — because there is no definitive way to test for it. But both commissioners agreed that their league’s testing program for steroids has improved exponentially since the 1990s.
As the discussion moved on, Russert asked questions about player integrity in respective leagues regarding arrests for domestic assault or weapons-related charges.
Slive and Goodell agreed that gun violence is not a serious problem in either of their leagues, as the percentages of players who commit those crimes is infinitesimal. Both commissioners did agree they are in a constant process of instituting the best practices for doling out punishment to players who break the law or violate league policies.
“There are going to be threats to our game,” Goodell said. “We can’t reduce those standards. We need people to hit a higher bar, and they will. We need to set those standards to a mark that we’ll all be proud of.”
One of the threats Goodell said he was most concerned with was gambling. He said the NFL works to ensure that there are no “outside influences” to the game — seemingly alluding to point shaving or outright fixing of games.
Goodell said the best way to maintain the NFL’s high standards is to use suspensions as a deterrent as opposed to fines — particularly when the punishment relates to player safety.
The Jamestown native said some athletes look at a fine as less serious, because they earn so much money, and he has learned over time that taking away playing time is the most effective form of punishment.
“When you take away the ability for them to play in a game … they think they’re letting themselves down,” Goodell said. “But more importantly, they think they’re letting their teammates down.”
Slive said one of the biggest challenges he faces with the Southeastern Conference is handling athletes and coaches who become instant celebrities in their communities.
Through the glitz, glamour and celebrity that comes with being a college football player, Slive said the main goal of the conference is to “educate, graduate and help our kids become citizens who can come out in the community.”
Despite the fact that star college football players can become local celebrities, Slive stressed the importance of keeping the conduct of student athletes in context. He stressed the word “student,” in “student athletes,” and he said it is up to universities to handle punishment before their athletic departments become involved.
Russert asked both commissioners to evaluate their performances as the leaders of their respective organizations. He offered the comparison of a head football coach reviewing film after a game.
Goodell gave a deadpan answer that drew a roar of laughter from the Amp audience.
“Our coaches don’t watch tape until the game is over,” he said. “My game isn’t over yet.”
The loudest ovation of the morning came when Russert, an unabashed Bills fan, asked Goodell to assure the audience that the franchise will not relocate during his tenure.
“There is no reason why the Bills can’t continue to be successful in Western New York,” Goodell said. “They should, and they will be. Not to mention the fact that I’d never be able to come back here if they did move.”
Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Let’s start with the following: Mike, you talked a little bit about trying to impact what goes on before kids get to you. I think we all recognize that most of what we know as right and wrong, indeed for most of us, we learned as young people. So, how much of the issues that you find yourself dealing with in terms of violations in ethics have to do with indeed the young people who are coming into your programs, and how do you have an impact on that?
Mike Slive: Geof, as we watch young people come to us, it’s really not the behavioral issues that are the issues of concern. The real issues are whether or not they’re academically prepared, and how do you motivate young people who don’t have the parental or households value system built into their lives from the time they are just infants. How do you replace that kind of support and respect for the academic mission? What we’ve done is we’ve begun to reach down into the high schools. For example, in order to be eligible to play in your first year of college, you have to be initially eligible, and you have to pass 16 core courses in high school. Those are English, math, science — courses of that nature. And what we found was that kids don’t get to thinking about that until they’re juniors in high school. So what we’ve done is we’ve started to say that you’ve got to have a progress rule back in high school like we’ve got in college. In order for you to be eligible right away, you’ve got to take 10 of those core courses in high school and pass them by the end of your junior year. So what we’re trying to do is to get a young person to recognize that athletic skill alone isn’t going to get it done for you. And we’ve also changed how the core courses are done, and what you can use and what you can’t use. But Geof, the real issue for us is trying to motivate young people early enough on the academic side, so when they wake up one morning and find out what a great football player they are, but they find out they can’t come to our schools, because they don’t have the background academically.
Q: Question, Roger, that goes to the cost of attending an NFL game for a fan, for a family and what can be done to make it more affordable.
Roger Goodell: Well, it is a big issue, and one of the things we are focusing on is how do we create more value for that cost. In addition, I would say that we’re the only professional league that has every single one of its games on free television, which is a distinction we’re proud of and we want to continue — and fortunately, just signed an 11-year agreement to stay on free television. So making sure we have a free alternative is important, but when you go to the stadium — the parking, the concessions, the ticket itself — all of those are challenges for us and making sure that it stays affordable and we can bring fans into the stadium. I’m glad to say that probably two-thirds of the teams have either kept their prices the same or actually lowered their prices this year. So they are making those decisions on a local basis, which they should, to make sure their stadiums are full. Our stadiums are averaging just over 95 percent full. So we must be getting the right balance in there, but we know there are some people that can’t afford to go to the game, and, fortunately, we have an alternative for that.
Q: Mike, to the question of institutional control. The questioner says, the most disturbing finding of the Freeh Report is that, for all intents and purposes, a head coach had superseded a university president in de facto institutional authority. What safeguards could be enacted to stave from this being the case?
MS: I thought somebody might ask, so here it is. About two weeks ago, we had our football media days in Birmingham, Alabama, and we had about over 1,000 media there. And I made a very brief comment. And I’ve always been very careful not to speak about places other than my own. There are a lot of people who feel free to do that, but I did say this. And I’m just going to read it to you, because it’s really all I want to say about this thing. And this was on July 17, so it’s two weeks ago:
The National Agenda for Reform is at its heart about integrity. Last week’s headline reminds us that we must be ever vigilant on all issues of integrity and that our primary mission is to educate and protect young people. We must maintain an honest and open dialogue across all levels of university administration. There must be an effective system of checks and balances within the administrative structure to protect all who come in contact with it, especially those who cannot protect themselves. No one program or person, no matter how popular, can be allowed to derail the soul of an institution.
Q: Luke, how much untoward and unethical behavior of stars goes unreported in order to maintain access to that person.
Luke Russert: Good question. Well, I will tell you this, that the advent of social media and the fact that if you have a cellphone, you are considered a reporter, because you have a video camera in here, you have the Internet in here, you have email. It’s actually made it a lot more difficult for us in the media to give anybody a pass if we wanted to. A great example is that a lot of folks like to say, “Well, if President Kennedy was president today, there is no way he would have been able to get past the primaries because of his previous affairs.” I agree with that in the sense that this day and age, it’s very difficult with the fact that you have a blogger around every corner, the fact that people take cellphone photographs, they tweet consistently. That to really sit on something not only puts yourself at a risk for making it look like you’re protecting somebody, but also you end up losing the story, because oftentimes (reporters) would let smaller things go by with the hope that they could break the bigger one further on. The one thing, though, is that when you are a beat reporter and you cover politics on a daily basis like I do — oftentimes when I’m in the Capitol, and because I’m a younger guy I might be mistaken for a staffer or a security guard, being 6 foot 2 inches, and I’ll overhear things in the elevator that I’m sure a politician would not necessarily want me to hear. And I’ve always made a decision that unless it is something that is truly going to shake the world that absolutely needs to be known, because I was in a position where I wasn’t identified as a reporter — they were talking to their colleague, I was essentially eavesdropping — then it’s probably not in my best interest to go forward and publish that. But if there is anything that I felt needed to be said, that the American public needed to hear, then I would go forward and without doubt do it. But in this day and age, I would say that’s pretty slim. Reporters are hungry to be known now, more so than they’ve ever been. It’s the culture of celebrity, and what better way than to take down the biggest politician there is or even now, in the Internet age, take down some small-time dog catcher in a small town. It gets notoriety, so I don’t think that’s something that exists as much anymore.
RG: But Luke, does that lead to a lowering of the standards in journalism, because there are more people who has access to that? And so that we as people who are involved with institutions, people can report it whether they have those standards or not.
LR: What’s fascinating about the current media climate is that if I went on TV right now and I said (a lie about Goodell and Slive), then I would be fired. … If someone takes to Twitter as a blogger that comes from a company or a publication that has no institutional control, they can get away with that. And people just say, “Oh, that person was just making it up, but they’ve had some good posts here and there.” And that’s a huge issue, and it’s a huge issue for us that come from reputable organizations, because often times we are paired with these individuals. And while there is certainly been a lot of good that has come from social media, and there is a lot of good that comes from blogs in the sense that it has brought more democracy to the news business. NBC, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, we don’t always get it right. We should get more people involved, but not everyone is playing up to the same standards. And that is a problem; it lowers the standards. And it puts us in a very uncomfortable position, because when the world is based so much on speed, it’s at what point do we jump in and run with it, or at what time do we fully vet it. And thankfully, where I work, they still say two sources for every single thing you put out there, no matter what. Sadly, there are other places that don’t have that standard.
Q: Roger, how is it fair that in player disciplinary matters, appeals are heard by you or by somebody you designate who is always an employee of the NFL. Wouldn’t it be fairer to have disciplinary appeals heard by a neutral arbitrator?
RG: Well, in fact, in almost every case, I don’t hear the appeals. The player discipline on the field is actually, excuse me, the initial decision is made by a former player who is in our office, but he acts on his own. And then it is heard by either a former player, hall-of-famer Art Shell, or former coach, including Buffalo’s Ted Cottrell. I very rarely get involved with that issue. We have also proposed in our collective bargaining agreement for all drug issues that that would be heard by a third-party arbitrator. But when it comes to the integrity of the NFL with something that deals with player safety or the integrity of our game, I am not going to allow that to go to some third-party arbitrator that doesn’t have the same interest in the NFL. My interest is making sure that the game stays strong, that the people who play it and coach it and are involved with it continue to do the right things. And that may not be the interest of a third party. So, I don’t make any excuses for saying when it comes to the integrity of the league, that is my job, and I am going to continue to make sure that I’m involved in those decisions.
Q: Mike, would you comment on the ethics of honoring contracts? It seems like football coaches, in any sport, basketball football, that the length of the contract doesn’t seem to mean much anymore that people feel free to move no matter how recently they signed a contract to stay for whatever length of time.
MS: You know, I have a legal background, but I’m a recovering lawyer. (Laughter) And I work at it everyday. You know, basically these contracts are personal service contracts, and they obviously, for reasons that I think have become part of the culture of higher education — when a coach wants to leave, that the institution normally allows them to leave, because they don’t want somebody dealing with their student athletes who don’t want to be there. And so it leads to that kind of thinking. The harder question, and the one I’m glad nobody asked me, so I’m not going to answer it but I’ll pose it: We allow coaches to move around, but if a young man wants to transfer, we make him sit a year. And the national letter of intent. I think the philosophy is correct. We say if you sign a national letter, you need to honor the national letter for at least a year at the institution. Because, we would like to believe that when a youngster signs to come to an institution, because we believe it’s education. That he signed because of the institution not because of the coach. That may be flying in the face of a lot of reality, but philosophically, it’s exactly what we’ve been saying all morning. That this is about higher education. You make sure when you sign the national letter of intent that you sign it, because you want to play and get an education at that institution. And then Luke and I were talking, or Luke was talking, about his earlier education, and how he learned to think about both sides of the questions and realize that there are two sides. And there are two sides to both of those questions. But it is a naughty problem, and I don’t necessarily have a good answer for you.
Q: The weight of football players has increased over the past 30 years. “The Fridge” was an exception in the ‘80s. Now there are many players his size. Could football help set a different standard and impact society’s obesity problem with a positive example?
RG: Well it’s actually, you know, our players who are just getting bigger. I think the general public would say “They are just getting bigger,” but not necessarily obese. In fact, our players, from an obesity, are below the national average. So they’re big, but they’re not necessarily obese. And I think the real issue for us is how do you make sure you take care of yourself? And how do you make sure that — while you’re playing the game you’re obviously going to get enough physical activity and you’re going to be watching what you eat — what happens with a lot of our players when they leave the game is they obviously reduce their physical activity, but they may not change what they eat or how much they eat. Well, that’s a bad equation. So one of our big initiatives in the National Football League is childhood obesity. We have a program called Play 60, which is just to be active 60 minutes — you can play football, you can play tennis, you can walk. Whatever it is, we need to teach our kids that you need to have that kind of activity, at least 60 minutes a day, and you also have to do proper nutrition. So they’re both big initiatives for us that we think we can make a difference on the world. And I would argue it’s one of our biggest problems for our youth.
Q: Mike, a couple of questions here that go to universities making so much money off the student athletes and whether there shouldn’t be payment of student athletes. Would you like to comment?
MS: I know there’s another side to this story, but we are in the education business. And you can be as cynical about it as you want to be. But we are in the education business. And we offer our student athletes — many of them — scholarships to come and get an education and that has enormous value. And you can quantify that over a lifetime. We liberalized our rules so that we can take care of some of these expenses that need to be taken care of like cost of education. I’ve been an advocate for increasing the value of the scholarship to the full cost of education. But it’s the cost of education. If we decide to pay players, we’re going to be a poor minor league to the NFL. And our institutions are not going to become professional institutions. At least, my view of it would be that I think our presidents and chancellors — before they would pay to have a football team, they would not a football team. This is about amateurism, this is about higher education, and this is about giving kids a chance to do something for themselves for the rest of their lives. If they have dreams and aspirations of playing for Roger’s league, we want to help them do that. I don’t think we do enough to help them do that, and that’s another subject. But we are universities. We are not a professional football league.
Q: Roger, this question goes to incentives and compensation and whether or not, is it all about winning or indeed if the compensation system was changed to include issues of behavior, and ethics and integrity — would that not help address some of the issues we’ve been talking about this morning?
RG: Absolutely true. I believe that competition can be very helpful in this case. And in fact, more and more teams are putting clauses in the contracts that, if you do not meet the standard, or if you do not represent the organization in the appropriate fashion, you can be docked pay. Most of our pay, frankly, isn’t incentive-based for on-the-field performance. In fact, about 50 percent of our money is guaranteed, and it’s not based on team performance in some cases. It’s about how much you get paid for playing a particular position and how well you do it. But the compensation is starting to shift a little bit more to support ethical behavior and the right kind of behavior. And I think that’s a very good trend and can have an impact.