Commentary

Can this NFL relationship be saved?

Maybe not, if players are going to insist that Roger Goodell be their best friend

Originally Published: July 28, 2011
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

Just got done reading page after page of the new NFL collective bargaining agreement summary.

Guess what? Nowhere in any of the bullet points, graphs, charts or info bubbles does it say the players have to like league commissioner Roger Goodell. Or that Goodell has to like them back.

And when the nearly 400-page CBA is signed by Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, there won't be a section, article or single sentence that requires the commish and players to be BFFs with each other. Not a word.

[+] EnlargeRoger Goodell
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicClearly, Roger Goodell has a sense of humor, even if the players haven't seen much of it lately.

So why then did Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison call Goodell a "puppet," "dictator," "devil" and "crook"? Why did Steelers safety Ryan Clark tell ESPN's Mike and Mike, "He obviously hasn't cared what the players thought"? Why did free agent defensive end Ray Edwards recently say, "I don't like him"?

Goodell is no statesman. Then again, he wasn't hired to be one. He was hired by NFL owners to articulate their position on all things management. He isn't their puppet, but he is their employee. He also knows who butters his bread -- and it isn't the players holding the stick of Land O'Lakes.

Goodell's mistake was representing himself as a partner of sorts with the players. And the players' mistake was believing him.

He positioned himself as a willing listener to the players' concerns. He wasn't an advocate, but he also wasn't an adversary. He was a different kind of commissioner.

Or so the players thought.

But the very nature of the job -- and the ownership constituency Goodell ultimately serves -- makes that sort of collegial, chummy relationship impossible to sustain. Goodell could never be the players' buddy. His heart might have been in the right place, but in the end, none of it mattered.

He isn't the devil, but he also isn't a saint. If he truly thought he could forge a substantially different relationship with the players, he was, at best, naive and, at worse, disingenuous. The very nature of the job is built around conflict.

Spygate ... Michael Vick ... Ben Roethlisberger ... Brett Favre ... Fines related to illegal hits ... Harrison. Someone has to be the heavy, and that someone is Goodell.

Goodell has alienated some players with his disciplinary rulings. And it's not just the rulings, but the perceived arbitrary nature of those rulings.

[+] EnlargeJeff Saturday and Roger Goodell
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesJeff Saturday apparently respects Goodell, at least. But he credited Robert Kraft first for the lockout settlement.

Players are creatures of structure. Their entire careers have been dictated by rules -- what they can and can't do, and what price they'll pay if they violate those rules. Goodell's penalties sometimes lacked structure and precedent. The players resented it and still do.

Once Goodell began campaigning for a new CBA, his relationship with the players was forever changed. His pro-ownership rhetoric in letters to NFLPA members and in op-ed pieces written for the Wall Street Journal drew a line in the turf. He had an agenda, and the agenda followed the management talking points.

No surprise there. That's what Goodell is paid $10 million a year to do: protect the NFL's blind side.

But something about him and the way he does business has caused a handful of players to declare a verbal jihad on Goodell. It's as if the Harrisons of the world feel betrayed. So they talk the loudest and they're heard the most.

I'm no huge Goodell fan. I'll never understand how a thriving, heart-healthy, $9 billion business had to endure a 132-day, owners-initiated lockout (or, as Goodell insisted on calling it, a "work stoppage"). His legacy will always include the fact that this lockout happened on his watch.

However, a new, 10-year CBA also happened on his watch. To what degree Goodell orchestrated that settlement isn't entirely clear. He obviously had a significant role, but Indianapolis Colts player rep Jeff Saturday said there wouldn't have been an agreement without New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Interesting.

[+] EnlargeRoger Goodell
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesHow long do you suppose the sincerity of this Patrick Peterson-Roger Goodell bear hug at the draft lasted?

To think that Goodell is universally disliked by NFL players is silly. He isn't. He also isn't universally beloved, but who cares?

The Colts' Saturday is said to respect Goodell. So apparently do several other players who were involved in the talks. Respect and being liked are two different things, of course. One matters, the other doesn't, especially in Goodell's line of work.

An NFL spokesperson said Goodell wasn't interested in discussing the recent criticism by players. The criticism, said the spokesperson, is an occupational hazard of the job and a byproduct of the often emotional and intense labor negotiations.

Fair enough.

But clearly, there is a divide between some players and Goodell. The width and length of that divide is less defined. For Harrison, it's as wide as the Monongahela River. For others, as wide as a sideline stripe.

The lesson is as old as the lyrics of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again." Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Goodell was the new boss who became the old boss. He can bear-hug all the first-round draftees he wants on the Radio City Music Hall stage, but he is not their friend and never will be. That's because his paychecks aren't signed by the players.

If the lockout proved anything, it's that Goodell and the players don't have to be pals to coexist. They only have to be able to sign their names at the bottom of the new CBA. If they want a friend, get a dog.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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