Mike Garafolo, USA TODAY Sports
NEW ORLEANS -- As the Super Bowl comes to town, the sentiments here toward NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell aren't too welcoming after his rulings in the bounty scandal wrecked the New Orleans Saints' 2012 season.
They're not so great inside locker rooms, either.
In a recent poll of NFL players conducted by USA TODAY Sports, 61% said they disapprove of the job Goodell has done overall, with most focusing on the increased fines of players for dangerous hits on defenseless receivers and quarterbacks and the perception of the commissioner's investigation into the bounty matter.
The poll of 300 players on active rosters or practice squads was conducted from Dec. 19 to Jan. 12, with a margin of error of plus-minus 5%. If requested, players were granted anonymity because they were concerned about fallout or reaction to their vote going public.
Goodell's 39% approval rating came from a number of respondents noting his role in making the game the most popular of U.S. sports, plus those who realize it's a thankless job, no matter who is in charge.
"I think it's obvious that I disapprove," said Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who has been fined more than $100,000 for hard hits throughout his career and has been one of the most outspoken critics of Goodell in recent years.
"I feel like what he's doing is not totally for the safety of players. ... A lot of stuff they've done, (such as) fining guys crazy amounts of money for helmet-to-helmet hits and all that and saying you're doing this for the safety of players. But yet you want to add extra games to the regular season.
"In the true interest of player safety, I would have no issue with it. But that's not what it's about. It's about money. Who hired Roger Goodell?"
A contentious relationship
The answer is the owners, and Goodell has stood as their public representative on some serious issues these past few years:
The lockout, which was an ugly verbal battle but ended before any games were missed, which is more than the NBA and NHL can say.
Growing concerns over the effects of repetitive head trauma, highlighted by a handful of suicides, such as Junior Seau shooting himself in the chest last year.
Increased fines and the resulting bounty rulings to show the league is doing all it can to prevent serious injuries.
HGH testing, which has yet to be agreed upon.
The lockout of the NFL officials, which resulted in poor quality of play for the first three weeks of this season and the "Fail Mary" in Seattle, a ruling in the Green Bay Packers-Seattle Seahawks game that cost the Packers a victory and ultimately a bye in the playoffs.
Buffalo Bills linebacker Kirk Morrison noted Goodell serving as the face of the owners on such issues is always going to lead to a strained relationship with the players, because he's the ultimate liaison between employers and employees. (The phrase "billionaires vs. millionaires" was a common one during the lockout of players that preceded last season.)
Goodell is the figurehead, which means he'll take on plenty of criticism when things don't go the players' way. During the lockout of NFL referees this season, owners were responsible for the league's initial refusal to bend to the officials' demands. But Goodell was perceived by many of the players as being the roadblock in negotiations.
"Roger Goodell has tremendous respect for NFL players and always seeks their views on a wide range of issues," league spokesman Greg Aiello said in response to the poll. "He values their input tremendously in working to make the game better. Roger broke into the league 30 years ago working closely with players, and he hasn't changed that approach.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees has been extremely critical of Goodell's rulings in the bounty case and also appeared to pin the referee situation on him. Though he didn't mention Goodell by name, Brees tweeted, "Ironic that our league punishes those based on conduct detrimental. Whose CONDUCT is DETRIMENTAL now?" Goodell acted alone in suspending Saints players and coaches for the bounty system.
Goodell initially upheld his ruling on appeal.
"When you create a system where you're both the judge and the jury and you preside over it in that manner, it seems inherently unfair," Arizona Cardinals kicker Jay Feely said.
Goodell has taken steps toward dispersing power. He appointed predecessor Paul Tagliabue to hear the second round of appeals in the bounty case. Tagliabue confirmed Goodell's factual findings but vacated all suspensions.
When Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed was suspended for a hit to a defenseless receiver in November, it was VP of football operations Merton Hanks - as agreed upon in the CBA - that decided the punishment. NFL hearing officer Ted Cottrell lowered it to a $50,000 fine on appeal.
"Anyone who has that position, who's trying to protect the league and what it stands for, is going to run into controversy," said Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who approves of the job Goodell is doing. "There are always going to be positives and negatives that go with it, but I know that Roger in his heart has the best interests of the league. ... If you're appeasing everybody, you might not be doing the job well."
Romo's teammate, linebacker Brady Poppinga, noted if the players can't do the time, they shouldn't commit the crime.
"I know there are a lot of guys who think (Goodell is) abusing his power, but we kind of let him. ... I think it's on us to curb how much power he has in wielding punishments."
Still, players such as Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Shaun Smith think Goodell is overstepping his bounds.
"I miss Paul Tagliabue. The league has changed," said Smith, who has played nine years in the NFL. "Bountygate was all 'he-said, she-said' stuff."
As for the player safety issue, there are those such as Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson who think Goodell should stop trying to turn the game into glorified two-hand touch.
"You talk about helmet-to-helmet collisions. I get about 18 to 25 a game; you're not going to be able to stop that," said Robinson, who disapproves of Goodell's performance. "That's what my job is; it's what makes us different. Not everybody in America can play this game, can take these hits and keep getting up.
"I know what I signed up for. If you want to protect us, why not mandate mouthpieces."
Goodell and the league have voted to make thigh and knee pads mandatory, starting next season. They became optional in 1994 when Tagliabue was in charge.
For every player who thinks Goodell is making that decision with the safety of the players in mind, there will surely be those who complain about the feel of the pads or say he should just back off entirely.
"Fines, this and that, that's part of the business. Everybody has to deal with it; somebody has to do it," said Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola, a 12-year veteran who approves of Goodell. "It's easy for outsiders or people to say this guy ain't doing a good job, but I think he holds people super accountable for their actions - and that's not a real bad thing."
Contributing: Brian Alee-Walsh, Jarrett Bell, Dave Birkett, Scott Bordow, Pat Borzi, Zach Buchanan, Jim Corbett, Andy Friedlander, John Glennon, Ray Glier, Lindsay H. Jones, Robert Klemko, Sal Maiorana, Jeffrey Martin, Bob McManaman, Carlos Monarrez, Kent Somers, Steve Wieberg, Phillip B. Wilson, Jim Wyatt.
USA TODAY Sports