Goodell's Locker Room Meetings Aren't Going Well
"You could definitely hear guys chuckling when he said that," Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth told FanHouse in a phone interview Friday.
Goodell said something like it when he met with Chiefs players at their training camp, too. And he got a similar reaction there.
"I mean, that's almost like a slap in the face to our intelligence," Chiefs guard Brian Waters said in a separate phone interview. "We know the owners are paying him. Don't take us for granted as far as our understanding of what's going on here."
It sounds like a great idea -- the commissioner of the NFL going camp-to-camp to meet with players in person. At each stop, Goodell has closed the door to the locker room and opened the floor for questions. He's meeting them man-to-man, without their coaches and without the lawyers who accompany him to the negotiating table during the formal CBA negotiations. And the players to whom FanHouse spoke for this story all said they respected that.
But those players don't think Goodell was ready for the kinds of questions he's faced in those locker rooms.
"I was hopeful we'd get some more answers," Browns linebacker Scott Fujita said of Goodell's meeting with that team. "I think he came in unprepared for how educated the players were going to be. A lot of guys were concerned about it afterward, and I think kind of shocked for how unprepared he was for these kinds of questions."
Fujita said Goodell opened the meeting at Browns camp by telling players to "fire away" if they had any CBA questions, and "guys sure as hell fired away." Fifteen minutes into the meeting, Fujita said, Goodell looked at his watch and said it was time to wrap up because coach Eric Mangini wanted the room back. Fujita said he walked out of the room and told Mangini, "Coach, it's going to be a while," and then went back in and continued the discussion with the commissioner for 30 more minutes.
At one point during the meeting, in discussing the rookie wage scale, Fujita mentioned that the players had put forth a proposal on that matter months ago but hadn't received a response. Fujita held up a copy of the proposal and asked the commissioner if he'd like him to read it aloud.
"I don't think he wanted me to read it," Fujita said.
In Baltimore, quarterback Joe Flacco peppered Goodell with questions about the rookie wage scale, and whether the owners planned to put in a provision that guaranteed that any savings derived from such a plan would be applied to pay for established veterans. Veterans such as Ray Lewis, Derrick Mason and Matt Birk joined in.
In Jacksonville, star running back Maurice Jones-Drew pressed Goodell on specifics about the owners' plans to expand the season to 18 games, and what they planned to do to compensate players for the extra work and the increased health and injury risks that could come along with that.
In Kansas City, Waters asked Goodell directly whether the owners were planning to cut health benefits for players in the event of a 2011 lockout. Linebacker Tamba Hali stood up and flat-out asked why the owners had opted out of the collective bargaining agreement.
"He couldn't give us any answers," Waters said. "All he said was, 'They weren't happy.' If we ask you why they weren't happy and all you can say is, 'They weren't," then how can you say we're having an open dialogue and this isn't just a P.R. move so you can say, 'Hey, I went and talked to the players?'"
If it were that, it hasn't gone the way Goodell hoped it would. What the commissioner has found is an angry attitude among players who are concerned that they'll be locked out in 2011.
"It's looming right now, and when we see Roger, that's what we think about," Foxworth said. "He represents the impending lockout."
Commissioner's office spokesman Greg Aiello said Goodell has so far had meetings with eight different teams and is scheduled to meet with the Colts on Saturday. Aiello said topics that have been addressed include concussions, helmet safety, player safety in an expanded season as well as retired player issues. Aiello said that if players weren't getting direct answers to CBA-related questions, that's because Goodell didn't think it was the appropriate format in which to answer them.
"These meetings are not intended to be CBA negotiating sessions," Aiello wrote in an e-mail to FanHouse. "He tells them directly at the beginning of the meeting that there is a formal negotiating process and he is not there to circumvent that. He is there to hear their questions and their perspective and to provide answers and offer his perspective when appropriate."
Talking to the players, it sounds as if they got the same answer from Goodell when they asked why he wasn't answering their questions more directly. And it also sounds as if they didn't like it.
"Those statements, everybody's tired of them," Browns tackle Tony Pashos said. "I think the players are tired of the spin, tired of the sneakiness. We're reasonable guys, and we're aware of that word negotiation. But there is no negotiation. It's take it or leave it. We've had 15 sessions and in not one of them did management come looking to do a deal."
Foxworth, Waters and Fujita all serve on the union's executive council and have sat in on negotiating sessions with Goodell and the owners during this process. But they all said what thrilled them was seeing the other players on their teams -- from the stars through the rank-and-file -- jump in with questions of their own.
"I think it really solidified to our guys, especially to our young guys, what I've been saying through this process," Waters said. "That this is a business. That the commissioner represents the 32 owners."
That last point is the one Foxworth sees as the problem. And he thinks Goodell's inability to give direct answers to the players' questions illustrated, for his constituents at least, that the real issues at the heart of the CBA matter is the owners' inability to agree among themselves on things like revenue-sharing.
"(Goodell) wasn't surprised, but I think he has a hard time with it because it's clear that some of the stances the NFL has taken are ones they don't all agree upon," Foxworth said. "I think the big thing is revenue-sharing, and they don't all see eye-to-eye on salary caps and things like that. I think Jerry Jones wants to be George Steinbrenner.
"I think Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder would be happy being in the NFC Championship Game every year and deciding who goes to the Super Bowl because they have an endless supply of money. I don't think they're in favor of a salary cap, and I know they're not in favor of revenue-sharing. I don't imagine Jerry Jones' NFL would look too much different from what the players would want. You never heard Jeter and A-Rod complain about what Steinbrenner was doing."
Goodell has repeatedly described the owners as united on CBA matters. As an example, he has cited the owners' collective willingness to allow this season to be played without a salary cap (a consequence of not getting a new deal done before this past March). He also has denied that the owners are planning to lock the players out in 2011 in an effort to get a new deal done, though the players and NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith have said they believe that's exactly what's being planned.
Given the depth of the differences between the two sides on these issues, Aiello said Goodell expected to field these kinds of questions in these meetings. He also said he believed such discussions could be productive.
"Very much so," Aiello wrote. "He believes strongly in having an open dialogue with players."
The players welcomed it too. It's not often they get a chance to make the commissioner squirm.
"There was clear frustration on his face," Waters said. "Guys were saying, 'Wait a minute -- you're not answering our questions,' and you could see he was clearly ready to get out of there. I think he took a great leap by going in there without any coaches or any of his advisers or anybody. He took a bold stance. But I don't think he was fully prepared for what he was going to find."