Mike Williams and Goodell's challenge

June, 8, 2011
6/08/11
1:23
PM ET
The Seattle Seahawks' leading receiver this past season is living proof that people can remake themselves through resolve and humility.

Mike Williams went from first-round draft bust in Detroit to NFL irrelevance before reestablishing himself in 2010 with a 65-catch season that came out of nowhere.

Williams is eager to take the next step. He has grown weary of the personal redemption angle, badly wants to outgrow it and constantly downplays what he accomplished in 2010. He realizes there's a long way to go in becoming a true No. 1 receiver.

Roger Goodell
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireMike Williams questions how players will relate to Roger Goodell after the lockout ends.
"Larry Fitzgerald is not a 60-catch, 700-yard No. 1 receiver," Williams said, underselling his own stats, but driving home the point effectively.

In speaking with Williams about a range of subjects recently, I was most struck by his thoughts on a more prominent NFL figure whose image will need repairing.

Commissioner Roger Goodell's transition from perceived NFL ambassador and part-time disciplinarian to punching bag for the players during the ongoing labor dispute could be by design. Goodell has absorbed punishment that might have otherwise struck the 32 team owners he represents. He has taken one for the owners' team.

But players' disdain for Goodell has sounded more like hatred at times. It has gotten personal. Some have felt as though Goodell betrayed them. The commissioner's harshest critics consider him to be a fraud. Once the lockout finally does end, the hard feelings will complicate Goodell's efforts to lead with credibility from the players' perspective.

"No disrespect to the commissioner because I have nothing personal against him," Williams said, "but how everything has been handled and how the players feel about him and how things have been said, who is to say there is not going to be problems with that?"

The idea that Goodell could resume fining players and funneling appeals through league channels strikes Williams as problematic.

"Do we get more than one guy to make decisions on whether guys are fined and that stuff?" he asked. "If there is going to be that much overhaul in the [labor] rules, we might as well change the whole thing. Really, he is a dictator."

In truth, Goodell has always represented the owners.

The commissioner, more than anyone, is the league. It was the owners, after all, who approved Goodell as Paul Tagliabue's successor in 2006. It was the owners who stood and applauded Goodell's ascension.

The NFL commissioner is the players' commissioner as well, but his role in relation to them, though blurred during times of labor peace, has always been different. The labor standoff has defined Goodell's role more clearly, and players have not liked what they have seen.

"I have been around long enough to see more than one NFL commissioner, and when I first got drafted and was following football, it seemed like the players love the shield," Williams said. "They embraced the relationship with the commissioner. I never heard a bad thing about him. When he did fine or suspend a guy, it was not a big deal."

The situation was different following the 1987 work stoppage because there was no lockout. It was the players who went on strike. When Tagliabue succeeded Pete Rozelle in 1989, the labor situation was playing out in the courts. Players had yet to make the labor gains a younger generation can take for granted. Media was far less pervasive as well.

The situation was different even in 2006, when Tagliabue and the late Gene Upshaw reached agreement on the most recent labor deal.

"Now, with social media and the Internet and Twitter and Skype, the commissioner's role has taken on a celebrity status, almost," Williams said. "I don’t remember Tagliabue wearing makeup to go on camera. It is a way higher-profile position that Mr. Goodell is in as opposed to his predecessor. It is different."

How Goodell handles the transition out of a lockout and back to football will be critical in setting the tone for future dealings with players.

In retrospect, the commissioner could have done a better job directing his labor-related rhetoric at the players' attorneys. He could have done more to depersonalize this fight by expressing genuine admiration for the players leading the labor fight, even as he questioned their lawyers' tactics.

Going forward, the resolve and humility Williams has shown on a smaller scale would serve the commissioner well.

"He has a road to climb the whole way," Williams said.

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