SEATTLE — The NFL’s shield should not be a sword.
That was the implication of Paul Tagliabue’s ruling to vacate the suspensions that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell doled out to four different members of the New Orleans Saints earlier this week.
The league called on Goodell’s predecessor to try and unwind this mess of a case, and he decided Junior was a little quick on the trigger when it came to his self-appointed role as the NFL’s behavior police.
This is a significant moment because after years of taking a “Father Knows Best” approach to this league he inherited, Goodell has had his hand slapped in a very public way by the man he used to work for. The shield—Goodell’s nickname for the league’s logo—had gone after its players in this case in a way that Tagliabue saw as inconsistent with the league’s history.
The players did it, Tagliabue concluded. They just didn’t deserve to be suspended. Not Anthony Hargrove, for obstructing the investigation. Not Jonathan Vilma for placing a five-figure reward to anyone arranging Brett Favre’s early exit from the NFC Championship Game and not Will Smith or Scott Fujita, either.
The team was culpable for the program, said Tagliabue. He blamed the coaches and executives, and in vacating the suspensions to four players, Tagliabue offered an implicit criticism of the way Goodell has chosen to govern.
The NFL’s current commissioner does not necessarily see the players as a product. He sees them as a workforce to be molded so they play the game the way he wants it played.
Concerned about concussions? Tell the players to stop hitting each other so hard in the head and fine them for the kind of hits that were lionized—not to mention marketed—by the league 10 years ago. Make it the player’s responsibility to be able to avoid those hits while not only running full speed, but aiming at a moving target. Slip up and expect a five-figure fine, and that’s just for starters.
It’s that same line of thinking that led Goodell to conclude some of the Saints’ players were culpable enough in the Saints’ bounty program to merit suspensions. As if the players should have—or even could have—somehow put a stop to a program that was administered by coaches, and in Goodell’s view, enabled by the team.
This is a game in which player contracts are not generally guaranteed, a profession where continued employment depends upon pleasing the bosses. This is not an environment that makes it easy for a player to tell a coach, “No.” At least not if they want to remain on the roster.
Goodell is trying to change the league under the shadow of litigation involving head injuries incurred by football players. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
It’s how he’s trying to do it that is problematic, something that Tagliabue not-so-subtly pointed out in his ruling regarding the Saints’ bounty program. He said that when someone tries to change culture using punishments and restrictions, it’s going to engender resentment.
“People in all industries are prone to react negatively whether they be construction workers, police officers or football players,” Tagliabue wrote. “They will push back and challenge the discipline as unwarranted.”
Time magazine labeled Goodell as “The Enforcer” in this week’s issue, which is odd considering Goodell has spent so much time cracking down on the kinds of hits that used to earn players that title. It’s also a reputation Goodell should reconsider in the wake of the advice he got from his predecessor in this week’s ruling.
Goodell’s approach could use a few more carrots and less use of the stick.