Commentary

Roger Goodell's bosses

Reaction to missteps clear any fog about role of commissioner

Updated: January 8, 2013, 1:58 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

The late, legendary Marvin Miller accomplished a great many things. He, of course, will always be remembered for breaking the reserve system in baseball and making millions for the players. Before the first player strike in 1972, Henry Aaron was the highest-paid player in baseball at $200,000 per season. Last season, based on his $30 million salary, Alex Rodriguez averaged $245,901 per game played.

Miller made the players think as a bargaining unit, not as peons grateful to be allowed to play a game that their talent turned into a billion-dollar industry. He won them the right to be free agents.

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Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesRoger Goodell talked with injured RB Maurice Jones-Drew before a game in November.

The most important piece of the Miller story, however, was not limited to baseball. He taught the professional athlete that the commissioner -- once cloaked in the fiction that he was the caretaker of a sport, equal part ally to club and player alike -- was nothing more than an employee of the owners. Whether it was Bowie Kuhn or Pete Rozelle, David Stern or Roger Goodell, the players had no say in who was chosen for the job. The commissioner -- even the first, Kenesaw Mountain Landis -- has always existed at the behest of the owners and could not be less impartial in his dealings with the game. He works for management.

If 2012 was the year of labor -- and there is little question it was, based on lockouts of NHL players and NFL refs and only a few months removed from the same of NBA and NFL players -- then it was also the year of the commissioner. That position has become the most lucrative in professional sports without receiving much scrutiny or accepting much accountability for the state of the games.

Gary Bettman has overseen three lockouts, including one that canceled the full 2004-05 season and a current one that threatened to do the same. David Stern has two game-canceling lockouts on his record as well, but no commissioner or his league (since hockey simply isn't capable of capturing the public) is more exposed than Goodell, who thus far has canceled only preseason games and allowed regular-season games to proceed with inferior officials.

The NFL is in a time of financial rise and moral twilight. Thousands of former players have filed suit against the game that gave them their livelihood. A few tragic others have taken their own lives after enduring the rigors of sport. Unlike any other sport in the country, it is commonplace to watch an athlete writhe on the ground in excruciating pain after any given play.

As the game's ratcheting violence solidified it as a death sport, Goodell's six-plus-year tenure has been defined by the rapid end of the old ways of the commissioner. Today, in the locker rooms and through social and traditional media, players from Roddy White to Jonathan Vilma openly criticize the commissioner and reject the moral authority he has attempted to convey. That rejection is in part because Goodell overreached, and it has cost him.

Goodell has spent much time attempting to define himself at the expense of numerous constituencies, generally unsuccessfully. When he first succeeded Paul Tagliabue, he was the law-and-order commissioner. The NFL was receiving as much attention in the police blotter as it was on the sports pages. Goodell muscled in with his player conduct policy, and his defining example was Michael Vick. Initially Goodell appeared to benefit from his tough approach. Vick had little sympathy from the public. That began to change, though, when an indefinite suspension followed his incarceration. Goodell appeared paternalistic. What's more, there was a perceived lack of fairness when NFL players were subject to Goodell's dictatorial trump card: the lack of an outside appeals process to his rulings.

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Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesNothing clouds Jonathan Vilma's view of the commissioner's office.

As labor negotiations neared, Goodell attempted to increase the season to 18 games, only to be thwarted by the tsunami of concussions and attendant long-term health concerns that have defined the game at a public level for the past two and a half years. Goodell and the NFL looked -- as they were -- insensitive to the mounting evidence that the human body could ill afford more football. Goodell appeared concerned with maximizing revenues for the owners more than the quality of life for the game's players.

Goodell stumbled badly on the lockout of the players in 2011 and surprisingly worse after that lesson, allowing this season to begin with replacement officials, neither of which was necessary. Goodell chose to take on another bizarre fight last spring, when he stifled competition by fining two of the game's richest, more recognizable teams -- the Cowboys and Redskins -- for spending more than the cabal of owners agreed upon during the uncapped year of 2010. You don't have to be Donald Fehr to know that this is called collusion, and the NFLPA filed a lawsuit in reaction. Goodell socked both teams with tens of millions of dollars in fines for trying to better their teams, never mentioning all the players who lost out because the other 30 teams agreed not to spend.

Then last spring came the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, which Goodell bungled from the start. He panicked toward sanction; he feared that continuing negative publicity about the game's safety required a harsh response. The whole saga concluded with an embarrassing admonishment from his predecessor. Tagliabue's 22-page decision on the NFL's handling of the bounty scandal vacated player suspensions while upholding the legitimacy of Goodell's suspensions of the Saints' coaches. Nevertheless, in his ruling Tagliabue seemed less than impressed with Goodell's thought process in suspending Vilma for the season, as well as his inconsistency in dealing with penalties.

The bounty case could have been a moment for the NFL to reign in a relatively common, if unsightly, element of its culture. Instead, Goodell played to the cameras and the reality that no matter how many times he repeats the phrase "player safety," there is nothing safe about football.

What Goodell has been, ironically, is one step ahead of the guillotine that threatens to finish his sport. That one step is fueled by the game's ability to make what for now appears to be limitless amounts of money. In a sense, his tenure has created something positive: an unvarnished commissioner. He is not heroic. He is not elevated. He is not a friend of the player nor a presence made invincible by blind deference and allegiance. In a sense, the Miller mission, through Goodell's example, is now complete: The outdated notion of the commissioner as moral arbiter is finally and mercifully dead; a boss in a suit is all that is left. Goodell is nothing but a CEO whose only job is to manage and raise revenue for his 32 shareholding owners clinging to the belief that, collectively, the sport is too big to fail.