“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.