The most significant ripple from Commissioner Roger Goodell signing a five-year contract extension worth about $200 million will surface a few years from now, as negotiations for the NFL’s next collective bargaining begin. Goodell will again lead the owners at the bargaining table, which will make the broad disciplinary powers he has wielded so often, in so many high-profile cases, a key issue, perhaps the central battle of the talks.
Here’s how the NFL Players Association can win that confrontation: Don’t fight it at all.
The NFL Players Association will face pressure from both its membership and the public to limit Goodell’s power, and to change Article 46 in the current CBA, the provision that gives Goodell sweeping discretion, the one cited in federal court when the NFL ultimately won its case to have Tom Brady suspended four games.
That is pressure the NFL can use as a truncheon to improve other parts of the next CBA in their favor. It might be the most advantageous aspect of Article 46 for the owners at present. The NFLPA should recognize three key factors and not give an inch to get the language pertaining to Goodell’s disciplinary power changed: It affects only a tiny percentage of players, commissioners in every league hold similar powers and the NFL ownership is already recognizing — publicly, and violently — that Goodell’s disciplinary cudgel needs to be scaled down.
There is no telling what the climate in the NFL will be like in the period before the current CBA expires in 2021. If it is anything like the present, it will be difficult for the union not to dig in on Article 46, which states the commissioner can deliver penalties “for conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football” and also can hear any related appeals. In the decade Roger Goodell has served as NFL commissioner, player discipline has been his defining issue. It has made players loathe and mistrust him and the public lose confidence in him.
And yet, it’s a fight the union would be wise to avoid. If the NFLPA wants the commissioner to cede authority granted in the current CBA, it would have to sacrifice something in the negotiation. The NFLPA shouldn’t bother trying to diminish Goodell’s power in the next round of CBA negotiations. It should recognize owners and public outcry will do so over time, anyway.
Goodell’s clumsy, draconian wielding of his authority has taken up all available oxygen the last several years. Deflategate dominated news cycles for more than 18 months, and the Ezekiel Elliott saga, and the resulting legal maneuverings and threats by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, has been one of the biggest stories of the NFL season. Those two cases received so much attention, and required so much activity from the NFLPA, that it seemed like an issue that ensnared everything. Really, it was two players.
The NFLPA represents hundreds of players, and Goodell’s disciplinary hammer directly effects maybe a handful each year. It doesn’t mean players shouldn’t care — when any player sees what happened to Brady, he has to know a similar railroading could happen to him. But they should focus on gains that apply to all of them directly, starting with their share of league revenue and player safety concerns.
Especially because the owners themselves appear prepared to limit Goodell. Jones’s miniature revolt shows the owners understand Goodell must be reined in on high-profile cases. Owners don’t want meandering court cases involving high-profile stars to overshadow the league’s product. And, as Jones showed so clearly, they don’t want Goodell’s gavel to land on one of their players. It hurt the NFL when Brady missed four games — league officials still cite the absence of Brady and other stars, the others lost to injury, as a crucial factor for sagging television ratings.
Goodell, in the owners’ eyes, has strengths as a commissioner. He won a hugely favorable CBA and league revenue have skyrocketed. (Whether they would have under any commissioner is another question, but it was Goodell who made owners a lot of money.) But he is clearly terrible at meting out discipline in a way that seems satisfy any constituency. Jones’s ongoing tantrum this season, in the wake Elliott’s six-game suspension, brought the dissatisfaction on the owners’ side to light.
Goodell’s power is not fundamentally different than any prior NFL commissioner, or any major sports commissioner since the days of Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Last month, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred banned a big league general manager from the sport for life. Every commissioner, in some form, holds broad discretion for punishments. It’s just that Goodell uses his in ways that serve no party.
When Goodell and the NFL ultimately won the Deflategate case after a series of appeals and counter-appeals, it served to maintain his sweeping power. The ruling gave the league another chip at the bargaining table in the next CBA. There’s no reason the players need to allow the league to use it.
>>> Warren Moon is being sued for sexual harassment, Craig Whitlock reports. The details in the suit are horrid. Moon works as part of the Seahawks’ radio broadcast team, and he is taking a leave of absence from that role.
>>> The Steelers are livid at how the NFL handled suspensions from Monday night’s game, Ed Bouchette writes. Bengals safety George Iloka had his one-game ban for a violent hit on Antonio Brown overturned, while wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will still serve his for a blindside, helmet-to-helmet block and subsequent taunt.
The Steelers’ quotes in Bouchette’s story are outstanding. The best point came from Alejandro Villanueva: Had the game been played at 1 p.m. Sunday, rather than nationally televised on Monday night, the suspensions likely never would have come. The NFL reacted to public revulsion rather than adhering to a clearly prescribed standard.
>>> Big game tonight in the NFC South. The Saints play at Atlanta in a game that could solidify New Orleans’s grip on the division and effectively knock out the Falcons. Both Marshon Lattimore and Desmond Trufant, the best cornerback on each team, should play after recent injuries. The teams will meet again on Christmas Eve.