Roger Goodell appears a few moves ahead of everyone in the NFL

Sally Jenkins
Columnist May 25, 2012

Roger Goodell is winning. He hasn’t met a player or an issue he couldn’t beat with a superior gaze. You have to admit that he is a success as NFL commissioner, if the definition of success is exercising control over 1,700 athletes and 32 owners without ever removing your suit coat, or showing a bead of sweat on your condescending forehead.

Name an issue Goodell hasn’t prevailed on. Player conduct? Owner crackdown? Work stoppage? This week, Goodell scored a legal victory over Dan Snyder and Jerry Jones when an arbitrator upheld his penalties against them for trying to circumvent the salary cap. There doesn’t seem much question Goodell also will beat the lawsuit filed a day later by the NFL Players Association, claiming that in 2010 the owners colluded on a secret salary cap of $123 million. In an odd way, the lawsuit is another victory for Goodell, because it exposes how desperate and frustrated the union has become during his tenure.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Of course the owners colluded. The NFL is built on collusion. Trouble is, in this case, the union signed a fat clause that excused owners for their piratical practices, and the commissioner has it in his back pocket. It’s called a “Stipulation of Dismissal,” and in it the players clearly gave away all claims regarding collusion, “known and unknown, whether pending or not,” when they signed their lousy labor deal last summer.

The NFLPA lawsuit is just kabuki theater, a staged gesture on the part of the union to look as if it’s doing something to fight Goodell. Maybe the NFLPA will get lucky and pry open the clause on a technicality — but the more important question is why the NFLPA ever signed such deal in the first place, one that significantly whacked rookie salaries going forward, and surrendered a potential $1 billion dollar claim with treble damages. Union executive director DeMaurice Smith doesn’t dare explain the real reason for the lawsuit, because he would have to say: “The players are feeling the effects of the fine print, and they aren’t too happy with me.”

Back in 1987, the hard-liner Tex Schramm stared across a negotiating table at then-NFLPA president Gene Upshaw and said, “You’re the cattle. We’re the ranchers.” The day the players get the better of Goodell will be the day they quit acting like Schramm’s bullied cattle.

While players stampede around filing lawsuits and braying that Goodell is a tyrant, the commissioner is as coolly responsive as a marble bust. Goodell is winning his battles not just in litigation, but in appearances and messaging.

The bounty crisis? Goodell’s posture was to announce a handful of strategically serious fines and penalties against the New Orleans Saints so it appears he is truly acting on the problem. Then he moved on without acknowledging that similar things happen in almost every locker room in the league. By limiting the fallout to a single team, he successfully ducked the truly damning issue: that in the NFL, you can knock out a guy legally.

Jonathan Vilma’s defamation suit? You think Goodell minds a sensational lawsuit in which he can pose as more conservative and concerned about players’ health than they are? Goodell doesn’t miss a chance to point out that the money in the bounty pool was provided by the players: It was their cash paid out to make someone’s head snap back.

“We’re going to do everything we can to provide the safest and healthiest environment for our players,” Goodell said piously in response to Vilma’s filing.

Vilma contends he was suspended for bounty-gate without proof, and that Goodell won’t publicly produce the evidence. But here again Goodell has something in his hip pocket: He hired former federal prosecutor Mary Jo White to review the validity of the investigation, and she calls the evidence “unusually strong,” with “firsthand knowledge and corroborated by documentation.”

You can almost hear Goodell testifying, “Commissioners don’t give players concussions; other players do.” Retirees are signing on by the thousands to class-action suits against the league over their concussion treatment. But their claims will hinge on the iffy contention that they had no idea football could really hurt them and that the league should have done a better job of protecting them — from each other. If the NFL were a stock, it wouldn’t sink on that one.

For decades, players have demanded to be treated as business partners by NFL commissioners. Each commissioner has fallen short of partnership, in a slightly different way. Pete Rozelle was sympathetic to players but left labor matters to management council hard-liners such as Schramm. Paul Tagliabue bridged the gap with Upshaw somewhat and worked collegially with him, but in a back-channel, discreet way for fear of being called a stooge by owners.

Goodell’s style, judging by player complaints, is patriarchal and dictatorial. This is a commissioner who operates on power principles, leverage, and the coordinated manipulation of public opinion, and so far the players have been weak, and uncoordinated. Is there much reason for Goodell to treat players like partners when he doesn’t appear to have an equal?

The parade of lawsuits will serve only to consolidate Goodell’s authority in the end. Players can complain that the commissioner is patriarchal or dictatorial. But on every issue — from collective bargaining to concussions — he also has managed to appear as if he is taking better care of players than they are of themselves.

For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/jenkins.

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