FOX Sports Exclusive
NFL commish takes majority of blame
It was back in 2008, at an NFL league meeting, that the owners got their first glimpse of the locked-out spring of 2011.
The moment came right before the league’s 32 owners voted to reopen the collective bargaining agreement that they’d nearly unanimously approved just two years earlier. There was a clear consensus then that the deal wasn’t working for the owners, and there was little internal opposition to reopening it, and the clock started ticking to March 2011.
But it was what happened during that meeting that left an impression. Three years later, one of the men in the room that day still remembers the words of NFL general counsel Jeff Pash.
Pash knew that he would likely be the league’s lead negotiator for what promised to be a contentious and difficult ensuing series of negotiations with the National Football League Players Association. But it wasn’t his own challenges that preoccupied him. Instead, Pash stood up in front of the owners and explained to them, in clear and precise language, exactly what the consequences of their actions would be.
“If you follow through with this, you need to be prepared to stand by this man” — and here Pash pointed toward his boss, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell — “when he gets all the blame for it. Because nearly everyone, from the players association to the press, is going to be pointing fingers at him.”
We are in the third month of the longest work stoppage in NFL history, and Pash’s words have proved prescient. The face of the lockout isn’t NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, though he’s proved a galvanizing figure in league circles. It’s not Peyton Manning or Tom Brady or any of the stars named in the players' antitrust suit against the league. And it’s certainly not any of the 32 owners who voted to reopen the agreement in the first place.
The man in the crosshairs is Goodell, who was intimately involved with the 2006 CBA, and is bearing the brunt of the blame for the protracted posturing and battle for leverage we’ve witnessed during this offseason. This goes far beyond being booed as he walked to the podium at April's draft.
When San Diego Chargers linebacker Kevin Burnett wanted to vent in March, he took aim at Goodell by name, calling the commissioner a “blatant liar.” There is no way Burnett would ever levy that same accusation at the owner of the Chargers, Alex Spanos.
When Smith says the players have been “lied to” he doesn’t point to a specific owner, just an ambiguous “they” — it’s Goodell who is the focus of the specific invective.
In past negotiations, previous NFL commissioners like Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue could prove decisive in negotiations, pushing the owners toward a deal, sometimes against their will. But those days are over. It is the owners who started this process when they quashed the existing deal in 2008. And, barring a game-changing decision in court in the weeks and months ahead, it will be the owners who bring the process to completion when they find a deal they think they can live with over the summer.
Until then, Goodell will serve as a heat shield, taking the criticism, championing the need for compromise, and sitting through numerous conference calls with disaffected season-ticket holders from Buffalo to Seattle. When the smoke clears, and we get back to football again — and we will get back to football again — I wouldn’t be surprised if Goodell gets a bonus from his owners. All things considered, he likely will have earned it.
There’s a phrase you hear a lot in the hallways of NFL teams during the season: Players play, coaches coach, owners own. The phrase most often comes up when some overzealous owner has helicoptered in and started trying to insert himself into a player personnel decision or a quarterback controversy. But now, among the owners, there’s a growing sense that fair is fair, and that the players would be well-advised to heed their own admonition.
These men all have an appreciation for the history of the game and understand their responsibility with continuing its legacy. But make no mistake, the new owner in the NFL is a businessman first and a sportsman second.
I don’t want to oversimplify all that’s happened, in the courts and at the negotiating table, in the past few months. But the more I talk to people at all levels of the game, the more I’m convinced that, ultimately, this will come down to a business. And, as the saying goes, “owners will own.”
More Stories From Brian Billick