Commentary

The NFL's vulnerable to a fall

Clemens, baseball a cautionary tale for Goodell, who should shore up league's faults

Updated: August 27, 2010, 3:26 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

The indictment of Roger Clemens last week returned to the foreground a flurry of images that baseball has spent the past half-decade trying to forget:

• Bud Selig sitting next to Stan Musial the night of Mark McGwire's 62nd home run in 1998, whispering to Musial that the legend was witnessing "a renaissance."

• Mark McGwire's 70th home run and subsequent news conference three weeks later, when he said his record would "stand a long, long time."

Barry Bonds breaking the record three seasons later.

[+] EnlargeRoger Clemens
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesIn 2004 Roger Clemens won the NL Cy Young, and his legacy looked untouchable.

• The devastating House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearings of March 17, 2005, the beginning of the end of Rafael Palmeiro's (and Miguel Tejada's) legitimacy, the permanent tarnishing of McGwire, Sammy Sosa and baseball's golden year of 1998.

The announcement that Clemens was charged with six felonies -- including lying under oath, obstruction of justice and making false statements -- provided a reminder of Feb. 12, 2008, again in Room 2154 of the Rayburn House Office Building, where Clemens sat before that same divided House committee. As Republican congressmen, such as Tom Davis, bent over backward to keep Clemens from embarrassment and Democrats, led by Elijah Cummings, breathed the fire for Clemens that the pitcher once reserved for hitters, Clemens offered essentially this message to the world regarding his performance-enhancing drug use: Everyone is lying -- but me.

Immediately preceding those years, baseball was larger than life. The excitement of 1998 had revived the game, given it immediacy, while igniting a financial empire that made owners and players richer than ever. The Yankees dynasty was restored. The Red Sox and White Sox won the World Series. The Cubs in 2003 were within a game of playing the Yankees in the World Series. Even as the BALCO scandal percolated, the sport still seemed untouchable.

If he is interested, the collapse of baseball's good name provides an important real-time template for Roger Goodell to avoid as the NFL season nears. Football is -- by the measures of fan interest and television ratings and survey after survey -- the king of American sports, presumably as untouchable, if not more, than was baseball during the age of McGwire.

Yet for all its seeming invincibility, football may be the most vulnerable of sports, a house of brick erected upon fault lines serious and numerous.

The first fissure is the game of chicken currently being played by Goodell and players' union head DeMaurice Smith and the very real possibility that football will suffer a strike or lockout in 2011. The two sides have accelerated the quiet rhetoric that stands to undermine the NFL's position as the country's top sport. Maybe Goodell is convinced of his own power because Smith has yet to record a major score for his union during his brief tenure. If Smith is to become a formidable adversary -- indeed, to become the power that parries the commissioner, just as the MLBPA has assumed that role in baseball -- he knows earning more money for the players is not the only battle that needs to be won, but also a serious curbing of Goodell's power in the form of a legitimate third-party grievance system for disciplinary actions against the players.

[+] EnlargeHearings
Bill Pugliano/Getty ImagesFormer Lions player Lem Barney was among those testifying before Congress earlier this year.

Or maybe Goodell is banking on the same history -- the legacy that NFL players do not have the willpower, stamina or unity to withstand a protracted labor battle -- that vexed and infuriated the late Gene Upshaw. It was this fact, after the stars crossed the picket line in the great missed opportunity of 1987, that forced Upshaw into the labor strategy of simply trying to squeeze the league for more television money and better pension benefits for the players.

These labor issues are as murky as the ones that once routinely plagued baseball, and from which the NHL has yet to recover. Billionaires fighting with millionaires, regardless of what side may be right, never gains traction with the public, even when you're the great National Football League.

Player conduct has served as the foundation of Goodell's commissionership, and it has served the dual purpose of winning the hearts and minds of sports fans weary of its moneyed, unaccountable athletes, as well as the sending the direct message to the players' association that the commissioner was willing to challenge the union on its own turf.

Goodell won favor with two historically skeptical groups, women and minorities, and now stands to squander the victory. The first credited him with his strong stance in the case of Ben Roethlisberger, whom Goodell suspended for six games for his reckless, embarrassing behavior. Roethlisberger has had at least two high-profile incidents with women that have put his reputation -- if not his career -- in jeopardy.

Goodell now seems to be retreating from his stance, intimating through uncharacteristically positive statements about Roethlisberger's progress that he may already reduce the quarterback's suspension down to four or possibly two games, before Roethlisberger has sat out even a single game. This would be a mistake. When Goodell came down hard on a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, it sent the message that perhaps the day had arrived in pro sports when women who had been mistreated could come forward. A reduction of the suspension sends a different message: that when the cameras are turned off, the old-boy network is free to resume as before.

Goodell is also aware that African-American players in the league believe they are judged by a double standard. One New England Patriots player last season referred to Goodell as a "slave driver." The reference was inappropriate literally, but the player's message was clear: The commissioner has too much power. Every player's situation is different, but if Goodell wants to maintain the impression that he is not engaged in favoritism (except in that he favors the owners) he must tread carefully. Goodell reduced Michael Vick's suspension from six games to two, after the quarterback's conviction on federal charges associated with a dogfighting ring, but Vick had already served prison time, and to many players the additional suspension appeared excessive.

At the very least, in the interest of fairness and maintaining trust with the group that makes up the majority of NFL rosters, Roethlisberger should begin serving his suspension before it is altered.

In baseball, no one in the sport -- neither the commissioner's office nor the players' union -- believed the federal government would have the interest or the stamina to confront baseball over performance-enhancing drugs. This even though President Bush challenged baseball to clean up the game in his 2005 State of the Union address, and his top cop, Attorney General John Ashcroft, personally announced the indictments in the BALCO scandal.

[+] EnlargeClinton Portis
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesConcussions have temporarily leveled many NFL players such as Clinton Portis. Researchers are now pointing to longer-term ramifications of head injuries.

Selig and the union were so evasive before March 17, 2005, that the government subpoenaed both to appear, creating the acrimony that marked that famous afternoon and the relationship that followed. It was an example of the worst kind of institutional arrogance.

The baseball people have always wondered loudly and with pique why football has so far escaped the steroid discussion, but football has its own Waterloo. It isn't PEDs, but the fundamental safety of the sport, which has been called into question by high rates of dementia and premature death among retired players.

When it comes to dealing with the federal government, the NFL has always had better public relations, but it is playing quite cavalierly with its most important health issue: brain injuries.

On its face, the league appears quite concerned with the trauma and long-term effects that come with playing professional football. The league has represented itself as responsible during congressional hearings. It funds medical studies on the effects of concussions and the various effects of brain injuries, ranging from depression to suicide.

Many of its players become morbidly obese, sometimes while still active, and the league has responded with its "Play 60" campaign, a public service program aimed at reducing child obesity.

The NFL, in effect, does willingly everything that baseball was forced to do on the steroid issue.

But much of this represents nothing more than public relations, cosmetics to keep the government off its back. The real proof that the NFL doesn't really care about the safety of its players as much as it does revenue potential is in its desire to expand the 16-game regular season to 18 games.

If the league were truly concerned about safety, it would be seriously considering reducing the number of games, or at least maintaining the current 16-game schedule. With a 14-game schedule, more players would have the opportunity to actually survive a full season. The potential for injuries would be reduced with the reduction of games, and the league would be sending the message that player safety is more important than capitalizing financially.

If the NFL is wondering how quickly the monument can be toppled -- if not financially, then in its reputation -- it needs to look no further than the pitcher's mound. The industry of professional football may seem untouchable now, but so too did Roger Clemens three years ago. Today, his and his sport's invincibility seem a very long time ago.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.

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