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Goodell isn't a player hater
I am not without prejudice on the subject of NFL ownership. After all, who’s ever heard of an owner coming down with post-concussion syndrome?
The recent decision not to eliminate that annual desecration of tackle football — the Pro Bowl — is a case in point. Still, it was a relatively modest money grab compared to, say, the lockout, which was downright immoral.
Just the same, as it pertains to the owners’ standard-bearer, commissioner Roger Goodell, it’s gotten to the point where you have to ask: Why the hate?
It’s unfair. It’s unfounded. And if the NFLPA wants cause to challenge his authority, it should find a better issue. Who’s representing whom here? Do players really want to work in a league that tolerates, however tacitly, a bounty system? Do they want a league in which teams of rogue managers incentivize “cart-offs and “knockouts,” or, more to the point, the potential maiming of coworkers? If this isn’t about health and safety in the workplace, then what is?
I’m not arguing that Goodell’s handling of this matter with the New Orleans Saints and their bounty program has been flawless. Last week, in response to Jonathan Vilma’s lawsuit, Goodell said he expected more of the league’s evidence to become public. Well, if that’s the case, the key pieces should’ve already been made public, including the ledger of under-the-table bonsues, the audiotape and whatever statements don’t compromise the witnesses.
What’s needed is the greatest possible degree of transparency. Goodell isn’t merely trying to change a mind-set, or to use the prevailing term, a culture. He’s not punishing an offense. He’s punishing the lies, too. The Saints have been lying and instructing their players to lie for three years. And now Jonathan Vilma wants to be believed?
“It’s really a win-win,” oft-fined Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison said of Vilma’s defamation suit against Goodell. “If he loses it, it shows that Goodell does have too much power and if he wins it, it opens up the floodgates.”
The wisdom of Harrison’s position escapes me. He’s a great football player but a recidivist when it comes to the intentional infliction of helmet-to-helmet harm, exactly the kind of hit that might yet mummify another generation of players. Yet he’s managed to make himself Exhibit A in this ill-conceived fight against Goodell.
This idea that Goodell is a player-hater — both literally and figuratively — misses the point. You think he wanted to punish these guys? Given the current climate, bountygate is about the last thing this commissioner would want public. Then again, I’m not the right person to be making this argument. Michael Vick should be the one.
Almost five years ago today — June 7, 2007 — federal agents raided Vick’s dogfighting compound in Virginia. He pleaded guilty later that summer to dogfighting and conspiracy, charges that would earn him a richly deserved 23 months in jail.
“I will redeem myself,” said Vick.
If not for the horrors he had perpetrated, the vow would’ve seemed laughable. The widely held consensus was that Vick — who’d test positive for marijuana while awaiting sentencing — had played his last game in the NFL. He was considered irredeemable. And no one had less cause to believe in Michael Vick than the guy he had lied to, Goodell.
Some months earlier, the quarterback had assured the commissioner in a face-to-face meeting that the allegations were baseless. Still, at the height of the anti-Vick sentiment, Goodell refused to ban him for life, instead holding out the possibility of Vick’s eventual reinstatement.
In retrospect, Goodell’s handling of Vick was prescient, in both appearance and substance: his refusal to buckle to the PETA protesters, his conditional reinstatement of Vick, his pairing of Vick with Tony Dungy as a mentor and counsel, even his apparent nudging of Vick toward a backup job with the Philadelphia Eagles (a suggestion first revealed by Vick himself). The punishment allowed rehabilitation in stages. What’s more, it allowed Vick a chance to earn his redemption, to make it believable, to make it meaningful. If this seems a bit paternalistic, well, commissioner is a paternalistic job in any sport. The case of Michael Vick is a watershed example. It’s also enough to forever dispel the notion of Goodell as a hater.
Redemption is a ritual. In the NFL, it begins with an audience with the commissioner. Unlike Vick, none of the now-suspended bountygate players — Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita — lied to the commissioner’s face. Rather, given an opportunity to make their cases with counsel present, the players chose not to appear.
Again, whose battle are they fighting? The guys they worked for — those formerly rogue management types — have already given them up.
You want to change the culture? Start by telling the truth.