The atmosphere at the NFL Draft is always charged with excitement but as I sat in Radio City Music Hall awaiting the start of the 2011 edition, I noticed that something seemed a bit off. There was a different energy in the air. There was a restlessness among those in the crowd. The usual excited chatter seemed to have been replaced by a slight murmur of aggression. I wasn’t the only one who noticed it. A fellow media member turned and told me that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had been heckled by an angry fan earlier in the day at an “NFL Play 60” event held in New York City’s Central Park.
“They are going to boo him right out of the building,” he said.
I was dealing with some problems of my own. The wireless internet connection provided to us by the NFL had failed, rendering my laptop and iPad pretty much useless. Unlike the fans, I was here to work, not watch and my frustration was growing as the minutes passed. Perhaps that is why I was especially keen to notice the agitated energy coming from the crowd.
At 8:04 PM I saw Roger Goodell appear in the wings of the stage. The big clock above the stage was seconds from hitting zero and I instinctively reached for my Flip Cam. I had to get his entrance on tape. Then a media member walked into the aisle in front of me and proceeded to spend what felt like ten minutes taking off his jacket and getting situated. Goodell hit the stage and I threw down my camera in disgust. If I couldn’t work, I might as well watch.
The minute the commissioner stepped on stage he was showered in a hailstorm of boos. From the back end of the mezzanine to the top of the highest balcony, it seemed every man, woman and child in the building were roaring with discontent.
Halfway to the podium, Goodell, who was walking sort of hunched over, leading with his head, glanced at us over his right shoulder. He flashed us his pearly whites in a big grin. He then reached out his right arm and gave a thumbs up.
“What is he smiling about,” I asked Matt Finucane, an Arrowhead Addict staff member covering the draft with me for FanSided. “Why is he giving a thumbs up?”
When Goodell reached the podium a chant began to cut through the chorus of boos.
It started small at first but slowly those booing relented to join a more powerful and direct rallying cry.
Goodell stood there for a moment. His face was flushed, I could tell from row RR. He was still smiling.
“I hear you,” he said. “Me too.”
Then Goodell did something so calculating, so utterly shameful that it can only be described disgusting. After a bit more pandering of “I hear you,” Goodell held up his hands. You see, Roger Goodell wanted to ask for a moment of silence for those impacted by the devastating tornadoes that had rolled through Alabama taking lives and destroying homes earlier that week.
The move was so plainly planned, so obviously designed to quell the booing crowd as quickly as possible that I actually felt nauseous. Goodell and his posse of PR people actually decided to exploit the pain and suffering of thousands of people and use it as a tool to meet their own pathetic ends.
It worked, of course. The crowd obediently quieted and put aside their righteous indignation in the name of compassion. What else could they do? Even those who knew they were being manipulated by the man in front of the microphone could not continue to chant.
I glanced at Matt.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said.
“I know,” he replied.
Make no mistake. Goodell asked for the moment of silence for one reason and one reason only and it was not to honor the victims of the disaster. It was not a move of compassion or humanity. It was an attempt to deflect the anger and frustration he deservedly encountered from those in attendance and probably many of the millions watching at home. It was despicable and over a week later I can’t believe I haven’t heard more about it in the media. People should be outraged. The suffering of others should not be used as a public relations tool for a multi-billion dollar business like the NFL. If you think the “moment of silence” was anything other than move to limit the public flogging Goodell was going to receive that night then you are simply naïve. If you think it is a coincidence that night two of the draft began with Goodell walking on stage for the first time accompanied by military personnel so that the boos would quickly become chants of “U-S-A,” then you are beyond my help.
Sure, Goodell got booed pretty much every time he stepped on the stage after the “moment of silence” but he had successfully devised a way to avoid getting the worst of it. There was never going to be a more volatile response from the fans than the first moment he stepped on stage to open the draft. The NFL is great at spinning things it’s way but this was the spin of all spins.
“I hear you.”
But he wasn’t listening.
In the end, the NFL labor issue is billionaires fighting millionaires over money. No matter what happens both sides are still going to talk away rich, just one side will likely walk away a little less rich than they want to be. It is for this reason that most NFL fans don’t really care what happens as long as there is football.
But while it isn’t necessarily important that we all pick a side, it is important that we do not allow ourselves to be manipulated. It is important that we remember who started this whole mess and it is important that we understand why, right now, there is no football.
The owners opted out of the previous CBA a year early. The first thing the owners did when the CBA that they opted out of expired without a new agreement was lock the players out and indefinitely put an end to football.
The first thing the players did when the owners locked them out was sue the NFL and request that a judge relive the players of the lockout and force the NFL to start the league year and continue football.
“I hear you. Me too.”
As I sat staring at a flushed, pink-faced Goodell standing behind the podium at Radio City Music Hall, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of his words. He was saying he wanted football, but at that very moment, the NFL had a request in front of the court of appeals asking for Judge Susan Nelson’s ruling ordering the end of the lockout to be overturned so that the lockout could be reinstated and football could be put back on hold.
He smiled. He flashed a thumbs up. He asked that we be silent.
Looking back on that moment, I keep thinking of George Orwell’s masterpiece “Animal Farm.” At the end of the story, the animals are peering through the window at the pigs who have taken over the farm as they play poker with some local humans. This is ironic because the original reason for the animals overthrowing the drunken, neglectful farmer was to ensure a better life for the animals. A life outside of the human influences they perceived to be evil. Drunk with power, the pigs in leadership positions have began to walk on two legs, wear clothes and sleep in beds. The animals notice that the faces of the pigs have begun to change. They realize that they can no longer tell the difference between the pigs and the men.
Sitting there in Radio City Music Hall, looking at a pink-faced Roger Goodell, I felt the same way.