In three decades of covering the NFL, I have watched owners laugh and, alternately, cry, over the highs and lows experienced by their franchises. In some private moments, when a few team bosses ceased counting revenues long enough to have dropped their guards and demonstrated passions unbridled by the absences of a notebook or a tape recorder or a mini-cam, there have been members of the ownership fraternity who have actually bared their unvarnished sentiments.
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About players or coaches or front-office personnel, you name it.
But never, at least in the last several years, has an NFL owner permitted his tongue to be publically unloosed long enough to diss the union’s questionable leadership, or to launch a barrage of verbal venom such as that directed by several players at NFL commissioner Roger Goodell during the lockout. Certainly not during the latest work stoppage when, if the newest CBA were negotiated with points for decorum and restraint, the league would long ago have been declared the winner by a TKO.
The latest bile emanated from Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, in the form of an interview with "Men’s Journal" for its August edition, a session in which he referred to the commissioner (among the more printable things) as a "crook," a "devil," a "dictator," a "puppet" and "stupid." The inane rant — probably fueled not as much by the $100,000 in fines Harrison accrued in 2010 as by a wide perception among a deluded group of NFL players that the game can only be governed by those who once played it – is just the latest salvo mortared in Goodell’s direction.
The mindset of some players is silly and, frankly, immature. George Will never ran for office, after all, but his commentaries on politics are no less valid. None of the union’s top-ranking officers played in the NFL, and the guys calling the shots have never been through a work stoppage, but the players by and large don’t conclude that leadership doesn’t have their best interests at heart.
Other rants included the characterization of Goodell as a "jerk" by Baltimore wide receiver Derrick Mason. Or the intimation by Seattle guard Chester Pitts that the commissioner is a "fraud."
Somewhere in Ireland right now, where he is the United States’ ambassador to the country, Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, the man credited by players as having provided a moderate voice of reason that helped end the last two work stoppages, is undoubtedly cringing. The elder Rooney not only championed Goodell’s candidacy in 2006, but was actually the man dispatched by his ownership brethren to the new commissioner’s hotel room to apprise him he had been elected as the retiring Paul Tagliabue’s successor.
Two months later, Goodell fined Rooney $25,000 for criticizing game officials.
Rooney responded with a few hardly-subtle jabs but the bet here – and I have known the gracious Steelers owner for about as long as I’ve reported about the league – is that he never lost his respect for him. Harrison, Mason and Pitts? Well, the feeling is that they and other members of a growing league rank-and-file, which believes Goodell serves only the ownership entity, have abdicated their regard for the man and his office.
We’re not going to piggyback on the Tuesday CBSSports.com column that lauded Goodell, delineated the positive steps he’s made for the game and concluded he is a "good man." Nor is it the intent of this exercise to conclude that, in winning back the respect of the players whose leadership has been so mistrusting of Goodell in the CBA negotiations, the commissioner faces a difficult battle. Goodell certainly doesn’t need us to defend him.
But here’s an inarguable point: If the measure of a leader is to keep his minions publicly in line, to have them subjugate their passions and to evenly and somewhat dispassionately respond to the misguided brickbats, then Goodell has earned a slam-dunk victory.
Sure, the commissioner has only 32 owners to whom he is ultimately answerable. And DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of a union of roughly 1,900, has a considerably larger membership to shepherd. But Smith, himself a man who never encountered a concise answer and whose incendiary rhetoric helped early on in the labor dispute to ramp up the level of vitriol, hasn’t controlled his constituents.
Besides some of the fairly innocuous, rock-lyric-based commentaries by Jim Irsay of Indianapolis, when’s the last time – heck, the first time, for that matter – you recall an NFL owner taking to Twitter to vent his feelings about the lockout or Smith? Agreed, many of the owners can’t distinguish a fresh tweet from a football cleat, but that really isn’t relevant.
Here’s what is: The owners may not have become rich men by tapping into the same level of passion that has made players wealthy as well, but they know how to temper their emotions.
And for restraining any of the 32 owners from going rogue, from keeping his band bivouacked on the reservation, Goodell deserves some credit.
In time, many of the words originating from the players during the lockout – remember Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis’ suggestion that the crime rate will spike dramatically if there is no football in the fall, or the insistence of teammate cornerback Domonique Foxworth that the NFLPA will never re-certify? – will float meaningless into the cosmos. Fortunately, among the silly syllables, will be those of Harrison, Mason, Pitts and others.
Lewis will return to doing what he does best, terrorizing those who dare venture across the middle of the Ravens defense, instead of compiling crime statistics for the FBI. Harrison will wreak havoc on offenses, and attack the pocket with even more fire than he attacked Goodell. Pitts, hopefully, will make more blocks than he does allegedly satirical videos.
Even by those who talked first and thought later, the rhetoric of the lockout will be chalked up to the kind of bashing routinely inherent to all labor battles. By the time of the first kickoff of the season, words will have dissolved into deeds. Goodell will move on with the business of the game and, probably, continue to perpetuate the myth that the players are actually the owners’ partners.
Talk, after all, is cheap. That’s fortunate for the likes of Harrison and his ilk, whose union leadership is battling over how to divvy up millions, even if the words of some of the constituents are essentially worthless.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.