During a lunch break at the Chiefs’ fantasy camp on Friday at Arrowhead Stadium, Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt sat three seats away from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for a panel discussion.
Then Colquitt took what might be termed a comfortably familiar stance with a man known to be somewhere between aloof and tin-eared.
“I think Roger’s going to be on our side” for the opener at New England, joked Colquitt, referring to Goodell’s role in Deflategate and abstaining from games at Gillette Stadium since.
As Goodell laughed, Colquitt said, “Too soon?”
“I wanted to give myself a little bit of cushion in case it was too soon,” Colquitt joked afterward.
Even so, he wasn’t done tweaking Goodell during the public performance: Moments later, Colquitt added that he believed the noise there can produce “concussion-like” symptoms — a reference to the NFL’s ongoing battle of perception in how it’s handling what has become an epidemic.
The backdrop for this was an event for which 100 campers paid $2,000 apiece, with proceeds benefitting the Center for Concussion Management at the University of Kansas Health Care System.
But the day was about that and more for Goodell, who mingled liberally and posed for selfies with fans, had extensive individual conversations with Colquitt and receiver Chris Conley and impressed both with an apparently newfound resolve to be more accessible and personable.
It’s easy to be skeptical, even cynical, of Goodell. The NFL also has any number of warts to contend with that aren’t remedied by its principle figurehead simply mixing with fans and players.
It’s also easy to dismiss this as an orchestrated, perhaps even contrived, effort to alter an image.
But give Goodell this: Between his recent announcement of easing restrictions on celebrations and the league’s $100 million financial commitment pledged last fall and reiterated Friday to address head trauma, to Colquitt and others Goodell at least is demonstrating some good-faith listening to constituents other than the owners.
That’s a substantial change in the eyes of Colquitt, who along with linebacker Derrick Johnson is the longest-tenured Chief as they enter their 13th seasons.
Colquitt believes Goodell has gone out of his way to loosen up.
And while he agreed it’s fair to say the trust level with Goodell among players has not been ideal, he immediately added, “But it’s also fair to say that he is working hard to not just alleviate or change that, but (that) he has done his due diligence (and is) going out of his way to see all kinds of players.”
And hear them, as was the impression of Conley, who like Colquitt is one of the most thoughtful Chiefs and not programmed to sycophancy.
In his first meeting with Goodell, Conley came away feeling Goodell’s mindset was, “ ‘Hey, let me learn something from you today,’ and I really appreciated that.”
Likewise, he added, “I was looking at him and listening to how he was speaking and learning from him.”
In a brief session with the media, Goodell spoke to one of the tangible aspects of his apparent effort. The decision to modify the celebration rules, he reminded, largely came from input of players in the “No Fun League.”
“I started as an intern in 1982, and I think ‘No Fun League’ was around then, so we have been (seeking to balance it) for a long time,” he said. “And that is the right word, balance. …
“What we want to do is keep certain standards: No taunting. We want the proper kind of sportsmanship. Nothing that’s either violent or sexual in nature that is going to be something that is going to be insulting to people.”
What he wants to let flow, he said, is “natural exuberance” and celebrations that otherwise “show their individuality.”
Goodell being Goodell, which is to say the designated target on the so-called NFL shield, he has been criticized by some for what they see as capitulation on this.
Even if he’s not generally a sympathetic figure, particularly with a salary of $40 million a year, it can be hard to win in his seat.
Meanwhile, the gesture doesn’t speak to far more hefty matters like the NFL’s ongoing issues with how to handle domestic violence or the gut-wrenching musical chairs of franchise movement (three announced in the last year-plus, including the money grab of the Rams moving back to Los Angeles from St. Louis and half the Chiefs rivals in the AFC West, the Chargers and Raiders).
But as Goodell spoke about the need for better technology for safety in the game and cited the evolution from leather helmets to the new ones Conley and Alex Smith among others will wear for the Chiefs, it seems reasonable to give him a nod for some degree of development of his own.
“Does he miss some things? Maybe. But we all make mistakes and stuff …,” Colquitt said, later adding, “He wants to get it right, and that’s what I see.”
At least if he doesn’t, you know, suspend Colquitt for his remarks.
“This league is an entertainment business,” Colquitt said, smiling. “And you have to entertain both on the field and comedically.”