NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is taking L after L these days. Just years after establishing his reputation as an iron fist commissioner, shrewd businessman and strong instrument of change, the legend of Goodell’s ultimate authority has been usurped, the players just aint feeling him and his league is as violent as ever.
Goodell stormed onto the NFL scene and into Paul Tagliabue’s seat as NFL commissioner, like a maniac dressed in black ready to attack. Players understood that if you played him too close, you’re bound to catch a cap. Goodell wanted a league that provided a great fan experience from players who were mouth-foaming beasts on the field (within the rules), but sedated poodles off. No player was too popular to be checked.
The cut-ups of the league have felt the wrath of the NFL’s Darth Vadar, who since taking office, has led the rally cry for player safety and instituted a harsh new personal conduct policy that was enforced through the 2007 suspensions of Chris Henry, Pac Man Jones , Terry “Tank” Johnson and Michael Vick.
His decisions weren’t always popular. Early on, some labeled Goodell a dictator. Once he dispensed discipline, any appeals process still returned to his mercy, and the record reflected a snowball’s chance in Hades of changing his mind.
His reputation grew as a commissioner, who was oozing with clout, and not afraid to use it. He’s also received criticism for making money his bottom line, and diminishing the entitlements of players who shape and make the game.
A growing public sentiment – especially from older, conservative fans – that NFL players are out of control, has always protected Goodell’s pimp hand. His strict actions painted a picture that he was simply protecting the NFL’s brand and holding players to proper standards of conduct.
Goodell initially handled the Saints Bountygate scandal in typical fashion: swiftly, aggressively and pretty much, arbitrarily. QB Drew Brees has been an outspoken critic of the way Goodell and the league handled the situation from jump. He felt the punishments were too severe and his team got a raw deal. New Orleans was livid, but most people in the NFL community assumed it was an L they would have to eat.
But in October, an arbitrator ruled that Goodell’s pimp hand was a bit too strong in his suspensions of Saints players.
Recently, Tagliabue, who was appointed by Goodell to handle a second round of player appeals, locked, sealed and confirmed it. In a direct slap of Goodell’s stone-faced cheek, Tagliabue tossed all player suspensions.
It was music to the ears of player’s like Brees whose team has suffered through a 5-8 season as a result of the damage and confusion Goodell’s decision caused.
“The NFL, through this whole process, including commissioner Goodell, has been all about an outcome as opposed to a fair process,” Brees said. “That's what we fought for. Finally, we got that. What I'd like to see is a level of accountability on the part of the NFL and commissioner Goodell in regards to the mishandling of this entire situation."
And, like many of the NFL’s players, Brees isn’t checking for Goodell. “Right now, the league office and commissioner Goodell have very little to no credibility with us as players and some of the fans,” he said.
Tagliabue blamed the Saints’ coaches and front office for the program, saying in the ruling, they “conceived, encouraged and directed” the bounty program and “led a deliberate, unprecedented and effective effort to obstruct the N.F.L.’s investigation” into the program.
Tagliabue did agree with Goodell’s findings that Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove and Will Smith engaged in detrimental conduct. He concluded a bounty program did exist and Vilma offered a $10,000 bounty on Brett Favre prior to the 2012 NFC Championship game against Minnesota. Linebacker Scott Fujita was totally exonerated.
It’s weird to see Goodell, a man who has been so smug and unwavering and appeared so sure that his information was gang-tight, now backtracking like Mars Bruno doing a MJ moon walk.
Nine months ago, when the scandal hit the fan, Goodell danced out like Ali and, without flinching, claimed that about two dozen Saints players, led by Williams, paid each other as much as $1,500 from 2009 to 2011 for trying to injure players such as Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favre.
The Saints' position was that a performance pool existed to reward defensive plays such as hard tackles, and causing fumbles, but never as monetary incentive to intentionally injure opponents.
To Goodell’s dismay –“down goes Frazier”. He had to know he was in trouble, early in the game. That’s why Goodell has chilled in the past few months. Lawyers for the players even confirmed that the NFL tried to offer them a settlement two days before Tagliabue’s ruling. Goodell has surely adopted a new non-Alpha male way of negotiating lately. It doesn’t fit his personality, though.
It’s understandable how Goodell flipped a career that began with a stint in the New York Jets' promotions department into the NFL’s highest position. His father, Charles, was appointed to replace U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy following his assassination in 1968 . Roger was captain of his football, basketball and baseball team as a high schooler. High principles, achievement and almost ruthless perseverance are part of his DNA.
This little “"pump ya brakes," moment may be a way of calming down Commissioner Commando. While the NFL explodes financially, Goodell’s genuine player concern has been described by some as hypocritical.
Goodell has been awfully quiet since his initial ruling got beat down by a panel created by the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. It’s probably how LouisXIV would feel if his divine right powers were stripped and couldn’t be-head peasants at his leisure.
Something’s not adding up. Goodell’s no-nonsense, bare knuckle approach to punishing players for breaking league rules and the way he’s turning the NFL into flag football, was supposed to clean up on illegal hits on the field and cut down on off-field arrests, which were giving the NFL a bad rep.
With the recent explosion of violence by NFL players such as the Chiefs Jovan Belcher, who killed his girlfriend and then committed suicide at the team facilities, and Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Josh Brent, who was arrested for drunk driving and charged with manslaughter after a car he crashed and killed teammate Jerry Brown Jr., the armor of Goodell is showing chinks. It’s only getting worse.
What has Goodell really done to change the culture of the NFL? By August of 2012, the NFL had already suffered 48 arrests, up from 44 in the entire 2011 season and 42 in 2010. Some of the more notable names included John Abraham and Michael “Burner” Turner from the Falcons, Chad Johnson, Dez Bryant of the Cowboy’s, Tennessee wideout Kenny Britt and Seahawks all-purpose stud Marshawn Lynch. We’re not talking obscure second-stringers. All of these players are major faces of their respective franchises and the charges range in seriousness from domestic abuse to DUI to assault. Goodell’s been a master at increasing global interest, by having NFL squads play a couple games in Europe. He’s expanded the NFL’s TV package to include football on Thursdays on the NFL Network, but he hasn’t cultivated a relationship of trust with NFL players. By putting a couple of them on blast, he made himself look good, but he’s obviously not getting to the core of the problem.
Granted, players aren’t wearing red and blue bandanas and tossing hood sets up after TDs anymore, but the recent incidents blow chunks in the face of his conduct policy’s main agenda, which is to stop the rising incidents of DWI, violence (guns) and domestic disputes.
Vilma became the first player to publicly challenge the scope of Goodell’s power. And it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Tagliabue’s decision and Vilma’s pending defamation of character lawsuit he filed against Goodell in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans), has revealed that the myth of Goodell’s “total authority” can be questioned. And with that, Goodell’s entire tenure is altered.
Let’s keep it real. If Goodell’s legacy is going to read pioneer, marketing genius and disciplinary guru, it also has to read schizophrenic. Goodell is lauded for being progressive and putting player safety before profit, but allowing replacement refs to officiate NFL games for weeks and botch a crucial TD call in a Monday Night Football game between the Seahawks and Packers was embarrassing.
The 2011 lockout wasn’t exactly a shining moment for Goodell either. Goodell’s first crack at being a lead negotiator and mediator, further showed his unwillingness to sympathize and compromise with the players.
Goodell’s insistence on trying to get an 18-game schedule pushed through lockout legislation, despite protests from the player’s whose bodies already endure horrific sacrifice under the current 16-game schedule, cemented him as a “pro-owner” commissioner in their eyes.
The recent Bountygate scandal has turned out to be another example of Goodell’s obsession with power rather than purpose. He thought intimidating players into being good boys was going to work. In accomplishing that goal, he seldom listened to the players whose right to due process he’s supposed to protect.
The recent NFL tragedies and having his mojo merked with the Tagliabue ruling leaves Goodell with a ton of PR work to do. Moving forward, he’s going to need better cooperation and understanding of his players to do it. It’s been proven that threatening to open a can of whip ass is not deterring their violent tendencies. Now might be a good time to build the next chapter of his legacy. One that includes a more balanced relationship with the players' union.
Tagliabue’s ruling, and the NLPA agrees, is a victory for the players and a definite shift from Goodell’s philosophy, which never held the owners accountable for anything. Coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season. Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely, General Manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for eight games, and the interim head coach Joe Vitt was suspended for six games. Tagliabue said that while fines were appropriate for the players, the N.F.L. had not previously suspended players for the kind of activities the Saints players were found to have colluded in.
The ruling also sets a precedent for Goodell’s disciplinary demeanor moving forward. Gabe Feldman, director of the Sports Law Program at Tulane, agrees. In an article posted on Bloomberg.com, Feldman said that the ruling also affirmed Goodell’s position to rule on similar future cases. He said the ruling put the onus on the Saints’ organization.
“The report argues that this bounty scheme was put in place by the coaches and the investigation of the bounty scheme was obstructed by the coaches,” Feldman said. “The players were, in essence, following the orders of their coaches.”
Tagliabue swooped in like Superman and saved the day. Goodell can learn something from his predecessor. Goodell can huff and puff and shout everyone to follow the leader. Question is, which Goodell will they be following, and will the players follow him?