Roger Goodell runs the NFL machine, which makes billions each year and routinely endangers its personnel. (The endangerment is not in question.) So on one hand–which is an enormous bejeweled hand full of gold–Goodell performs his job as commissioner surpassingly well. But then there is the other hand, which keeps getting bitten as it feeds the thing. Goodell’s not much for talking publicly about his job or the league or its problems–which include more than 4,000 ex-players currently suing for the league’s allegedly concealing the health risks they faced. (Goodell insists player safety is his foremost concern.) Remarkably even ESPN can’t get a straight-up interview with Sir Roger, despite being one hell of a client (next year it will pay the NFL nearly $2 billion). Goodell likes his football hard-hitting, not so his journalism.
Reporter Jay Busbee, while lauding Don Van Natta Jr.’s great story about Goodell for ESPN: The Magazine, reports rumors that the commissioner harbors a single fear about what might derail his majestic juggernaut: a death on the field. It’s just rumor; Goodell hasn’t said as much. Hell, it’s probably been dreamed up by the plaintiffs’ lawyers. Yet there’s a near consensus (among aficionados and, really, anyone who’s ever watched a game) that the fear is well-founded. It’s also generally believed an on-field death would be bad for business, though nothing in the historical evidence supports the claim. So if indeed Goodell is sleeping poorly on his $30 million annual salary, we offer succor. The college basketball phenom Hank Gathers died after dunking on the court in 1990. College basketball has never been bigger. Boxer Ray Mancini killed Duk Koo Kim in the ring in 1982. Boxing purses have grown ever since. Celtic superstar Reggie Lewis died on the court, albeit in practice. The NBA thrives. Besides, no one’s died on the NFL field since 1971. If it happens again, well, isn’t a fatality every 40 years in a high risk game is a small price to pay for all that entertainment? You can bet though that, in the event, the lawyers for the dead player’s family won’t have to float any unsubstantiated rumors. They’ll have what they need. Maybe Roger Goodell is, after all, worried about just what he claims is his priority: damages.