Goodell becomes face of distrust for players
KANSAS CITY, MO. — This is Roger Goodell's fault.
A news conference that many see as being designed to strong-arm NFL players into accepting owner demands that haven't even been presented to players instead stands as his own premature "Mission Accomplished" celebration.
Good for the players. They aren't willing to be pushed around, and are trusting that fans are smart enough to see through the owners' transparent bullying and play for public support.
And that's Goodell's fault, too.
Here's the important thing to remember: This deal will be made final, and almost certainly soon, because there is too much money at stake for both sides if they reach agreement and too much hatred in store from fans if they don't.
But what we're seeing now is the illustration of a major distrust many players have of Goodell and the owners.
The thing that goes immediately overlooked is that the deal appears fair. There are parts that are pro-players and parts that are pro-owners. If this is the framework that's eventually passed, it's also pro-fan because it goes for 10 years without any opt-outs. But the players can't be expected to instantly pass something they haven't had time to digest.
No real deadline passed Thursday night when the players didn't ratify the owners' proposal to end their lockout. Players have until next week to approve (or counter) the deal without missing a single snap of football, so why rush on the owners' account?
Social media and greater availability of information have played a part, too, but essentially the owners made a power play and the players didn't cave.
What the owners did would have been shrewd in the NFL of years past, when the union established a tradition of giving in. If the owners expected that again, they underestimated the damage Goodell has done.
Through a series of mistakes that can most logically be explained by ego or stupidity, Goodell has made himself so disliked by players that they've bonded and fought and showed more solidarity than at any other point in the league's history.
Think about that.
Commissioners are supposed to be agents of progress, but it's not hard to find people inside the game who saw Goodell's presence as a problem from the beginning of negotiations.
He came into this thing with a bulletproof rep, which by now feels as outdated as acid-washed jeans. Goodell built what used to be seen as armor through his tough-cop crackdowns on player behavior. Guys didn't need to be convicted, sometimes not even charged, to feel the wrath of Roger. He fined violent hits — clean ones, sometimes — with the same impunity.
Fans mostly celebrated Goodell's intentions, but his mistake came in not delegating punishment the way commissioners in other leagues do.
He didn't need to be the face taking money out of players' checks, just as he didn't need to present himself as the face of the first work stoppage in America's most popular sport in nearly 25 years.
The owners' biggest mistakes now have his signature on them, mistakes that either fumbled or delayed a frustrating process for the rest of us while giving the athletes fans root for an entire summer to look into television cameras and say all they want to do is play football.
Many longtime observers of sports labor situations say this is the most public venom they can remember being directed at the owners, and through his own doing, Goodell made himself the sponge for it.
Fans booed him like Bernie Madoff at the NFL draft, the man who used to pose for photographs at tailgate parties now seen as the face of unfathomable greed.
Roddy White called Goodell's style a "dictatorship." Derrick Mason called the commissioner "a joke." Kevin Burnett accused him of being a "blatant liar." Others characterized him as a publicity hound, insincere, unwilling to listen ... and we haven't even mentioned anything James Harrison said.
And that's only what guys said publicly.
What makes it even worse is that the owners didn't need to operate this way. When the new labor agreement is finally approved — and it should be within days — many of the owners will be bruised.
That's especially true in Kansas City, where Clark Hunt has cut pay for team employees, decided that ticket-takers should no longer be allowed to watch the games they work and had his team's low payrolls highlighted by the proposed agreement's salary floor.
They didn't need it to play out like this. The NFL is a fail-proof business model with players whose short careers make it frightening to miss paychecks. Work stoppages are for broken leagues, like the NHL six years ago or the NBA right now.
The NFL owners' last-second power-play — when a nation of fans built anticipation — would be a genius business maneuver if effective.
Unfortunately for them, the man they trusted to be the face of the lockout is so distrusted by the players, he must work with that the whole thing is, at least for the moment, stalled.