Souhan: Saints fans toss barbs, not beads, at Goodell

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 1, 2013 - 10:05 PM

The NFL chief championed the team's return after Katrina, but Bountygate and lawsuits cast him as a villain.

NEW ORLEANS - Roger Goodell wants to save NFL players from a lifetime of pain. Players reward him with complaints.

Goodell is presiding over a Super Bowl held in New Orleans largely because of his dedication to the city's recovery and the Saints' viability. Saints fans hang his picture like a wanted sign.

The commissioner held his annual state-of-the-NFL news conference Friday morning at the New Orleans Convention Center. Most of the questions he fielded dealt with player anger over his campaign against head injuries, and fan anger all over town.

This proves nothing more than that commissioners are always "too" something. Too officious, such as former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Too pompous, such as the NBA's David Stern. Too folksy, like baseball's Bud Selig.

Goodell's most obvious flaw during his reign has been eagerness. For years he acted like the new boss who wants to make changes not to improve the product but to pad his résumé.

Friday, it was hard not to view Goodell as the eager boss who can't win despite the best of intentions.

The same players who argue they should be allowed to use their helmets as weapons might someday find themselves disabled, perhaps even suicidal, in a few years because of violent hits. The same city that treats Goodell as a pariah overlooks his work behind the scenes in championing New Orleans as an NFL city and Super Bowl host.

"I couldn't feel more welcome here," he joked. "When you look back at it, my picture was in every restaurant, I had a float in the Mardi Gras parade, we got a voodoo doll."

Some New Orleans restaurants feature pictures of Goodell above captions such as: "Don't serve this man." Since he sanctioned the Saints for placing bounties on opposing players, including Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in the NFC Championship Game following the 2009 season, street vendors have increased profits by selling "Free Sean Payton" T-shirts, referring to the Saints coach suspended by Goodell for the 2012 season.

Most visitors to New Orleans go home with beads; Goodell would settle for leaving without bruises. During Goodell's news conference, one security guard manned a side of the stage, scanning the crowd as if protecting the president.

"The disdain for Roger Goodell in 'Who-Dat Nation' is palpable," said longtime Saints beat writer Brian Allee-Walsh, who covers the team for sportsnola.com and the Baton Rouge Advocate. "It started on Day 1 and, as the saga has unfolded over the months, it has grown. Some of it is comical, some of it is ridiculous, but a lot of it is very real.

"As the litigation has unfolded and as the NFL and Goodell in particular have been painted as judge, jury and hangman, that disdain has grown."

Are fans willing to give him credit for helping the Saints franchise following Hurricane Katrina? "I think those fans who view this situation in a fair and balanced way certainly do," Allee-Walsh said. "But they are greatly in the minority."

After Katrina devastated the city in August 2005, the Saints adopted San Antonio, a city that has long craved an NFL franchise, as their temporary home. Goodell worked as the NFL's chief operating officer under Tagliabue. He worked with Saints and city leaders to get the Superdome repaired quickly, so the team could return home for the 2006 season.

The quick resurrection of the dome and return of the team helped New Orleans fight off suitors such as San Antonio and helped New Orleans remain in its planned rotation as a Super Bowl host.

Without Goodell, the Super Bowl would not be here this week. "But Tagliabue," Allee-Walsh said, "is seen as the Saints' savior."

Goodell might have overreached with his punishments of the Saints. He might be unrealistic when trying to reduce the violence in an inherently violent game.

He had little choice but to punish a team revealed to be using a bounty system. He has little choice but to try to make the game safer for players, for their own benefit and to reduce the league's exposure to future lawsuits.

His latest visit to New Orleans will remind him that commissioners often can't win in the court of public opinion, even when their game is popular and their intentions are honorable.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. jsouhan@startribune.com

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