Roger Goodell’s Father Had a Political Backbone—Why Doesn’t Roger?

Roger Goodell’s Father Had a Political Backbone—Why Doesn’t Roger?

Roger Goodell’s Father Had a Political Backbone—Why Doesn’t Roger?

The NFL commissioner is bending to pressure from a reactionary Republican president—something Senator Charles Goodell refused to do.


Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that Roger Goodell is possessed of the political courage that distinguished his father.

The National Football League commissioner has bent to political pressure from a Republican president and a right-wing crusade to punish freedom of expression. Specifically, Goodell has rolled out a new policy that requires “all league and team personnel” who take the field before NFL games to “stand and show respect for the flag and the [National] Anthem.” If football players do not obey—and take a knee to protest systemic racism—Goodell will “impose appropriate discipline” on Americans who exercise their right to express their views.

President Trump, who for the better part of a year has been agitating for the punishment of players who protest against police brutality and racism, was pleased. He said Goodell and the NFL owners he represents “did the right thing,” and then the president upped the ante by announcing that “You have to stand proudly for the National Anthem or you shouldn’t be playing. You shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”

Trump knows nothing about the values that underpin the Constitution he swore an oath to protect and defend, let alone the basic premises of the American experiment over which he temporarily presides. But Roger Goodell should know better.

Goodell is the son of a man who risked, and ultimately lost, his US Senate seat when he protested against the policies of another Republican president. The story of the elder Goodell’s struggle provides a stirring example of intellectual integrity and honest patriotism—precious commodities that are in as short supply today as they were a half-century ago.

Charles Goodell was thought of as a reasonably conservative, if reform-minded, Republican congressman from upstate New York in 1968, when New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller appointed him to fill the vacancy created by the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The new senator was expected to be a relatively predictable ally of incoming Republican President Richard Nixon.

That did not turn out to be the case.

Senator Goodell entered the national spotlight as an independent Republican who was willing to take on his own party’s leadership—especially on the issue of the Vietnam War. In short order, the formerly obscure legislator emerged as a national leader in efforts to end the war and a thoughtful advocate for reworking budgets so that federal dollars that paid for wars might instead be used to address urban needs and environmental challenges. “Despite the constraints that normally doom a freshman senator to obscurity, he has succeeded in the two years since his appointment to replace the slain Robert Kennedy in moving into the front rank of those fighting to recast national priorities and to dissipate the miasma of fear and regression that breeds conflict between groups, races and generations,” declared The New York Times in 1970.

The Nixon administration did not agree. Though Goodell was a Republican in good standing, with his state party’s nomination in hand, the Republican White House began disparaging him—sending a clear signal that it preferred not Goodell or the Democrat in the New York Senate contest of 1970 but a third candidate: Conservative Party nominee James Buckley.

As part of what the Times referred to as “a crude purge attempt by Vice President Spiro Agnew and assorted hatchet-men of the right,” Goodell was attacked by his own party. Agnew openly campaigned against the senator, describing Goodell as a “radical liberal” in speeches that echoed Buckley’s themes.

Charles Goodell could at any number of points in 1969 and 1970 have reconciled with Nixon and the Republican leadership. He had many allies and friends in the upper echelons of the party, including New York Senator Jacob Javits and House minority leader Gerald Ford. The president and his administration worked relatively comfortably with a number of moderate Republicans, even with some who expressed skepticism about the war. But Goodell’s determination to take a leadership role in opposing the war—by, among other things, introducing legislation that would have withdrawn all US troops from Vietnam by the end of 1970—enraged Nixon. And while the senator’s penchant for framing debates as the moral choices that they were won him endorsements from Coretta Scott King and Dr. Benjamin Spock, it made him the target of Agnew’s most brutal campaign barbs.

The New Yorker’s slogan that fall was: “Keep Senator Goodell—He’s too good to lose.” But without united party support, Goodell’s campaign for a full term sunk in the polls and he was swept out of the Senate. Though Goodell and liberal Democrat Richard Ottinger won a combined 61 percent of the vote, Buckley prevailed with 39 percent. It was a tragic result that played a critical role in the transformation of the Republican Party into an increasingly right-wing and reactionary cabal.

Goodell accepted his defeat with grace and continued to serve his country. After Agnew and then Nixon resigned in shame, the former senator was appointed by President Gerald Ford to cochair the committee that drafted amnesty rules for bringing home young Americans who had left the country rather than serve in the Vietnam War. That wasn’t a particularly popular task, but it helped to reconcile a country that remained deeply divided over the war. And so Goodell accepted the responsibility.

Charles Goodell was that kind of patriot. He took on difficult challenges. He refused to compromise his principles. He defended dissent, and dissenters; indeed, he became a dissenter—joining anti-war marches as a sitting US senator. When other Republicans were adopting a “Southern strategy” that appealed to the segregationists who were fleeing the Democratic Party, Goodell embraced civil-rights campaigners and marched arm-in-arm with Coretta Scott King. He stood up to reactionaries. He refused to be bullied by a president of his own party.

Roger Goodell has said his father knew the risks as he waged that 1970 campaign as a Republican who would not go along with Nixon and Agnew and “Southern strategies” and distant wars that no longer made any sense—with a full understanding that “taking that position he did would be the end of his political career.”

Roger Goodell still has his career as the commissioner of the NFL. Unfortunately, he has it because he bent to the false patriotism and reactionary pressures that Charles Goodell so nobly resisted.

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