Imagine if in 2004 during the darkest days of the Iraq war, George W. Bush had called a press conference and said, "Wow. I have really screwed the pooch on this one and sure as heck can’t fix it. Well fool me once… won’t get fooled again. I have therefore decided to call upon my predecessor Bill Clinton to clean this up. Have a nice day.” This would have meant more than a loss of prestige. Even Bill Kristol would call such a move the beginning of the end of Bush’s time in the White House.
That's what just occurred in the corridors of power of the National Football League. Commissioner Roger Goodell has "recused himself" from hearing the appeals of four suspended current and former members of the New Orleans Saints charged with leading a "pay to injure" bounty scheme. Instead he’s appointed former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to do it for him. The evidence behind the suspensions has been unraveling for some time and now the authority of the once almighty current commissioner is unraveling with it.
There is no sugarcoating the defeat this represents for Roger Goodell. Over 17 years, Paul Tagliabue oversaw labor peace and a spirit of cooperation with the NFL Players Association. Of course, most owners therefore couldn't stand him. Goodell was selected as an anti-Tagliabue, a person the owners wanted to centralize authority, streamline the player-discipline process, and above all else, reclaim revenue from the players’ pockets. This was all justified by selling the necessity of a stern father cracking down on "conduct unbecoming" the NFL. Unlike every other sports league, when Goodell issues a suspension, players cannot appeal to an independent arbitrator but only to the NFL commissioner himself. The prosecutor is also judge and jury. No checks. No balances. Roger Goodell is the law.
The New Orleans Saints “Bountygate” was supposed to be the crowning achievement in Goodell's efforts to remake the league as a vertically organized, authoritarian enterprise. He was, with great media fanfare, to dispense harsh justice on players who aimed to intentionally injure opposing players. In one swoop, Goodell would show his unquestioned concern for the health and safety of players and emerge as the most powerful leader in the most influential popular sport in the land. There was just one problem: the entire premise of “Bountygate” was built on a foundation of hypocrisy and lies.
This week, the Bountygate case imploded. Goodell sent a memo to all 32 teams that his “anonymous whistleblower”, whose existence many doubted, was in fact former Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy. Not so fast. Kennedy released a statement saying that Goodell was spreading "blatant lies about me, thereby adding me to the list of men whose reputations and character have been irreparably damaged by the shoddy, careless, shameful so-called investigation behind this sham proceeding." Kennedy goes on to categorically deny any possibility that he was a "whistleblower" for a bounty program looking as fictitious as the reasons a certain President took us to war in Iraq.
But this wasn’t even Goodell’s most acute migraine of the past week. One of the accused players, Cleveland Browns linebacker and outspoken NFLPA leader Scott Fujita excoriated Goodell for rank hypocrisy on the issue of player safety. In a much-publicized written statement, Fujita spit fire, saying,
"The Commissioner says he is disappointed in me. The truth is, I’m disappointed in him. His positions on player health and safety since a 2009 congressional hearing on concussions have been inconsistent at best. He failed to acknowledge a link between concussions & post-career brain disease, pushed for an 18-game regular season, committed to a full season of Thursday night games, has continually challenged players' rights to file workers compensation claims for on-the-job injuries, and he employed incompetent replacement officials for the start of the 2012 season. His actions or lack thereof are by the league’s own definition, ‘conduct detrimental’. My track record on the issue of player health & safety speaks for itself. And clearly, as I just listed, the Commissioner's does too."
The sentiments of Kennedy and Fujita are widespread in locker rooms around the NFL. Goodell is simply not seen as an honest broker. In the movie Miller’s Crossing, the world-weary Tom Regan says to his boss, the crime lord Leo O’Bannon, “You only run this town because people think you run it. The minute they stop thinking it, you stop running it.” Clearly more than a few players have decided that Goodell may have the legal authority but lacks the moral authority to tell them anything. Goodell’s call to former Commissioner Tagliabue is recognition of this reality.
Goodell's efforts to be Rudyard Kipling spliced with Gordon Gekko looks like it’s on the road to failure. It's a failure for the owners but a victory of Fujita and the other players railroaded by the NFL’s discipline process. It's a victory for the NFLPA that has long maintained opposition to this kind of absolute authority. The NFLPA still may contest Taglibue’s appointment. Tagliabue's law firm is currently representing the NFL in US District Court on the bounties case and this raises "legal and ethical" issues. If the NFLPA chooses to, they can raise another "legal and ethical" issue: if Goodell is too compromised to hear the appeal, why should he have the sole authority to appoint his replacement?
But most of all, Goodell's recusal is a victory for the non-1%-ers that that are glued to the sport. There is too much power centralized in too few hands already in this country. The failure of Goodell to exercise that power on the highest possible cultural stage is a victory for all of us.
Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to email@example.com.
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