Roger Goodell didn’t go to New England for the Patriots’ playoff game against the Texans, opting instead to watch the Falcons. The following week, he eschewed a trip to Foxborough for the AFC Championship to spend another Sunday in Atlanta.
Roger Goodell did this, because Roger Goodell is a smart man.
“Goodell would need to borrow the Pope-mobile if he attended a game at Gillette Stadium,” Greg Hattoy, a lifelong Patriots fan who lives in North Attleboro, Mass., opined.
Stephen Sullivan, a fan from North Kingstown, RI, was more succinct, but less tactful in his response.
“F— Roger,” he quipped, his eyes narrowing to show the judgment often reserved for dictators.
The pair isn’t alone. A quick search of “Goodell Patriots” on Twitter has been a constant source of vitriol since May 2015. Local companies in New England score easy points by roasting the most powerful commissioner in professional sports. An entire stadium took time out from cheering on the Pats in the AFC Championship to volley a chant at the conspicuously absent executive.
It wasn’t always this way.
Goodell was once friendly enough with Patriots owner Robert Kraft to regularly receive dinner invites at Kraft’s Massachusetts home. He was a neutral presence in New England before Deflategate levied huge penalties on the Patriots despite a dearth of hard evidence. As his protracted battle with quarterback Tom Brady unfolded in New York City courtrooms, his reputation sunk lower and lower the closer you got to Boston. The more New England fans learned about the ideal gas law, the more they raged against the perceived tyrant unfairly holding their franchise back.
That’s a problem for Goodell, in 2017 and likely for the rest of his life. Few fan bases hold grudges like those in New England. Older Red Sox fans still seethe at the mention of Bucky Dent, and all he did was hit a home run back in 1977. Bill Simmons still writes angrily about Bernard Pollard, the man whose low hit tore Brady’s ACL back in 2008. These are not forgiving sports fans, even despite being forced into a winning culture at the turn of the millennium.
But even if he never steps foot east of New York, Goodell couldn’t avoid the Patriots forever. When the commissioner refused to go to there, New England found a way to come to him. He’ll see Brady live for the first time since his four-game suspension was upheld when he takes in Super Bowl LI in Houston.
A Patriots win would press the issue even further. Should the franchise claim its fifth Super Bowl title, Goodell would have to hand the Lombardi Trophy over to Kraft — a man who was “livid” about Deflategate and who publicly stated he doesn’t think his relationship with former-friend Goodell will ever be the same. If Brady wins his fourth Super Bowl MVP award, it will be the commissioner contritely passing it over.
And if Brady does win it, he might finally let loose on the figurehead who cost him four games of a potential MVP season.
Deflategate didn’t slow the Patriots down. Bill Belichick’s team was built to survive a drought thanks to its reliance on low-end draft picks and undervalued free agents. Goodell’s sanctions were primed to manufacture a famine in Foxborough this season as punishment for circumventing league rules. Instead, New England went 14-2 and clinched the franchise’s ninth Super Bowl appearance.
That’s a lot of dirt Patriot fans are still waiting to rub in the commissioner’s face, but they may never get the chance. A podium at the Super Bowl is likely the closest Goodell will get to New England and its fans. Because he knows what will happen if he crosses into Massachusetts. He’s smart enough to avoid a conflict he can’t win.