Inside Slant: Roger Goodell’s ‘conflict of interest’ problem and other points

PHOENIX — Moments after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell completed his annual Super Bowl press conference, ESPN analyst Bill Polian cut to a crucial flaw in the presentation.

“Everyone wanted to hear about domestic violence,” Polian said. “Everyone wanted to hear about Deflategate. Everyone wanted to hear about the major issues that have affected the league outside of the normal realm of the game. And he led off with the extra point!”

Indeed, Goodell mentioned the ongoing discussion about the length and difficulty of extra points before referencing any specifics about an ongoing investigation into the integrity of the AFC Championship Game. We have plenty of coverage on what Goodell did say about the New England Patriots’ deflation issue, so let’s consider his ill-placed but still notable remarks on other issues — starting with the basic definition of a “conflict of interest.”

1. Perception vs. reality

Goodell bristled at two questions in particular.

One referenced the league’s hiring of outside attorneys it pays to provide independent investigations. (Former FBI director Robert Mueller, who investigated the league’s response to the Ray Rice domestic violence matter, worked at the same law firm as Baltimore Ravens president Dick Cass.) The other question referred to his attendance at a party hosted by Patriots owner Robert Kraft the night before the AFC Championship Game shenanigans.

Goodell’s response was, in essence, that no conflict of interest existed because the people involved are all people who have “uncompromising integrity.” That might be true, but that isn’t the full point of a conflict of interest. It’s not simply whether impropriety occurred as a result of an interconnected relationship. It’s whether the relationship creates the perception that an impropriety could occur.

Did Mueller take it easy on the NFL given his firm’s relationship with Cass? Will investigator Ted Wells exonerate the Patriots because Goodell partied with Kraft a couple weeks ago? Unlikely. Is it possible to conceive? Of course.

No matter what might or might not have happened, Goodell would be well served to step away from anything that could provide even the appearance of a conflict. His defiance remains a hurdle in publicly moving past the issues of this season.

2. That troublesome extra point

Goodell: “Fans want every play to have suspense. But the extra point has become virtually automatic. We have experimented with alternatives to make it a more competitive play and we expect to advance these ideas through the competition committee this offseason.”

Seifert: NFL place-kickers converted 99.3 percent of their extra-point attempts in 2014 (1,222 of 1,230), a year after hitting 99.6 percent. The league experimented by moving the kick back to 33 yards during the preseason and then narrowed the goal posts for the Pro Bowl. It seems likely the league will push some form of a change through its competition committee in the coming months.

3. Expanded playoffs

Goodell: “The possibility of expanding the playoffs has also been a topic of discussion for a number of years. There are positives to it, but there are concerns as well, among them being the risk of diluting the regular season and conflicting with college football in January.”

Seifert: This change has seemed certain for the better part of a year, and Goodell said recently he expected a vote during the league’s owners meeting in March. The “concerns” Goodell mentioned Friday represented at least a tapping of the breaks. A cynic would say Goodell was acknowledging objections simply to placate outnumbered opponents.

4. Officiating changes

Goodell: “We are looking at other ways to advance replay and officiating. That includes potentially expanding replay to penalties if it can be done without more disruption to the face of the game. We are discussing rotating members of the officiating crews during the season as a way to improve consistency throughout our regular season and benefit our crews in the postseason.”

Seifert: Vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said Thursday that multiple teams have already submitted proposals to expand replay in various ways. It seems unlikely the league will allow all plays to be reviewed, as the Patriots proposed last year, but a slower expansion is a realistic possibility.

Rotating officials, meanwhile, might help dissipate the penalty disparities among crews that we have documented for the past two seasons. It would also devalue the chemistry and familiarity that season-long crews develop.

5. Goodell: “We are aggressively pursuing the streaming of a regular-season game with our first over-the-top telecast. It would be carried on broadcast stations in both team markets, but also reach a worldwide audience, including millions of homes that don’t have traditional television service.”

Seifert: At the moment, this is a win-win for everyone. All games would remain available over-the-air while the NFL and its chosen partner experiment with streaming. Some day, of course, the NFL could offer some games exclusively via streaming, most likely at a cost to consumers.

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