Whether or not Roger Goodell survives this latest tempest, the job of NFL commissioner has to change. Goodell spends too much time these days in his judge’s robes, weighing evidence and dispensing justice (or some facsimile). When things get particularly gnarly — and how often aren’t they these nightmarish days — it’s almost as if he’s presiding over night court.
And it’s not just players who are being hauled before him by the bailiff. It’s an owner who drove drunk (with a veritable pharmacy in his car). Or an owner who thought he could game the salary-cap system. Or a coach who ran a bounty program.
There’s simply too much misbehavior in the NFL for one person to deal with, especially when you consider all the other duties a commissioner is expected to perform. The job was never meant to be like this. Or rather, the Founding Fathers — George Halas and the rest — never thought of the commissioner, first and foremost, as judge, jury and executioner. A spokesman for the league? Sure. Its commanding general in labor battles and TV negotiations? Absolutely. A consensus-builder and Man of Vision on important issues? Without question. But a pro football version of “Judge Judy”? Not so much.
In the early years, Joe Carr, who was commissioner longer than anyone except Pete Rozelle (1921-39), could usually be found traveling around the league, attending games and looking in on
franchises. “I was always getting calls,” he once said, “to come in and help them unsnarl their finances.”
When owners meetings got contentious — that is, when the Bears’ Halas looked ready to slap a headlock on somebody or the Redskins’ George Preston Marshall started irritating his lodge brothers in his imperious way — Carr would step in and calm the waters. “Many times at league meetings, we would recess late Saturday night in turmoil and on the verge of permanent dissolution,” Dr. Harry A. March, the Giants’ first general manager, wrote in Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs. “The next morning, he would lead the boys of his religion to Mass, and they would return in perfect harmony.”
Disciplinary matters took up little of Carr’s time. Oh, he might fine a club for signing an ineligible player, but the game itself was largely self-policing as far as on-field conduct was concerned, and off-field conduct was pretty much beyond his purview. (Though he did tell one sports columnist “a rule similar to the one in hockey, penalizing the player who offends by a one- or two-minute removal from the game, might make [for] less fouling and more action,” and that he planned “to urge the adoption of such a rule.” If only it had come to pass.)
Things began to change late in the 1946 season, when an attempt was made to fix the championship game between the Giants and Bears. A front man for a gambling syndicate had broached the subject with two members of the Giants, quarterback Frank Filchock and fullback Merle Hapes, and neither had reported it to the league. It was the last thing the NFL needed: any suggestion its games weren’t on the up and up. So commissioner Bert Bell was given more
authority to deal with such situations — and anything else that might be deemed a threat to the league. He suspended Filchock and Hapes indefinitely, and soon enough the scandal burned itself out.
Still, the commissionership then was nothing like the commissionership now. Nowadays, for instance, Goodell has to be eternally vigilant about the violence issue; and when he isn’t bringing down the hammer on somebody for over-rough play, he’s lobbying — or taking steps himself — to make the game safer. So much so that some are beginning to complain, with more than a little justification, that “you can’t play defense anymore.”
In the ’40s and ’50s, when there weren’t as many TV cameras or as much media covering the league, Bell could turn a blind eye to most of the carnage. An interview he gave Sports Illustrated in 1957 is enough to make you gasp.
“Somebody fouled [Eagles quarterback] Davey O’Brien once,” he told the magazine. “That guy got straightened out a little bit — in language — and every time he got hit. It was a little harder every time he got hit. . . . Sure, if a guy is looking for trouble, he gets it. That’s true. He’ll take a pretty fair thumping from the players, but legally.”
Bell, a former NFL owner and coach — and a college player at Penn before that — had a predictably old-school, boys-will-be-boys attitude toward dirty play and dangerous tactics. After the Eagles’ Bucko Kilroy broke the nose and jaw of the Steelers’ Dale Dodrill with an elbow in 1951, he said, “There are 300 big boys in this league, and somebody is bound to get bruised. I also noticed while reviewing this game that one of the Eagles got a busted cheek, too. I suppose that was an accident?”
After Bell, the job became a lot more complicated. Recreational drugs became an issue. PEDs became an issue. Misbehavior on and off the field became more visible and problematic. And again, this isn’t limited to just players. In management and the coaching ranks, the anything-it-takes-to-win mindset has never been more prevalent. You see teams trying to circumvent the cap, coaches bending OTA rules, all kinds of nefarious activities. If the NFL had any shame, it would be embarrassing.
At any rate, all this has fallen in the commissioner’s lap, and it’s clearly too much. Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice episode — or mishandling, if you prefer — fairly screams this. Rice’s original two-game suspension, when many were expecting more, smacks of a commissioner who just wanted to get the case off his desk, Get The Matter Behind Us, rather than one committed to getting the decision right.
Is that a character flaw on Goodell’s part or merely occupational overload? If it’s the former, there isn’t much that can be done about it; but if it’s the latter, there is. For starters, you can take the Judge Judy out of the job and turn it over to . . . well, that’s an interesting subject. My first call would be to Alan Page, the Vikings’ Hall of Fame defensive tackle, who’s now an associate justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court. “How about coming back,” I’d say, “and helping us clean up this mess?”
Page, now 69, is probably too smart to want to assume the duties himself, but he’d no doubt have some good ideas about how to set up the operation so that everybody — not just the league and players, but also the fans — would feel their interests were being served. It might be a difficult balancing act, but it’s certainly worth the try. Right now, all we have is a commissioner handing down penalties from on high and, almost invariably, being criticized for being either (a.) too harsh or (b.) too lenient.
OK, occasionally folks actually agree with one of his rulings, but more often than not it’s a no-win situation. And all that does is make him — and the commissionership — look weak. It needs to stop. Now. If the NFL does nothing else in the wake the Rice debacle, it should create an Independent Judiciary to police the game. Goodell obviously isn’t up to the task. Indeed, no commissioner may be up to the task, as time-consuming as that function has become.
Maybe one man, one exceptional man, can do it. Maybe a tribunal is the answer — or a rotating group of arbitrators. There are all kinds of possibilities. Almost anything would be better than what the league has now.
It bears mentioning that Roger Goodell isn’t an elected official. He owes his allegiance to the owners, not the public. So he has no obligation to tell us the whole truth and nothing but the truth — unless, of course, he wants to, thinks he should. That’s just the way it works in corporate America. Or didn’t you get the memo?
He also wasn’t the guy who KO’d Janay Rice in the elevator — though, from the level of outrage directed at him, you’d sometimes think he was. Here’s what Goodell is, above all: A man who, in this emotionally charged instance, did his job incredibly poorly (and then dug the hole deeper by doing an even worse job of explaining himself).
The question now becomes: How does the league respond, pending the outcome of the investigation by former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III? Will Goodell get fired? Will he voluntarily fall on his sword? Or will the owners keep him on but decide, rightly: We have to find another way to deal with crime and punishment?
Whether Goodell stays or goes is of little concern to me. I don’t think he’s a particularly good commissioner, but I’m also not convinced the next one will be an improvement. The same owners, after all, will be hiring him. There’s plenty of evidence, though, that the job has become too big for one person.
The NFL is no longer the mom-and-pop operation it was in Carr’s day, and the winking denial of the Bell years has ceased being acceptable. So it will be fascinating to see where the league goes from here. Hopefully, for the game’s sake as much as their own, the owners understand they have to go somewhere, they can’t just keep doing what they’re doing. That would be the biggest mistake of all.