Goodell plays the role of new sheriff in town perfectly

In the past, the NFL was reluctant to punish so swiftly, so sternly. Not anymore. Roger Goodell's lengthy suspensions of Pacman Jones and Chris Henry sent a much-needed message to the players, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: April 10, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

As personification of the egalitarian principles that serve as underpinnings for this country's legal system, Lady Justice always is shown wearing a blindfold.

Roger Goodell never will be so depicted.

At least not after Tuesday afternoon, when the NFL commissioner, still in the on-the-job-training period of his new gig, brought down a more strident but much-needed style of justice on the league's most notorious incorrigibles, Tennessee cornerback Pacman Jones and Cincinnati wide receiver Chris Henry.

Roger Goodell
AP Photo/Mark LennihanRoger Goodell came down hard Tuesday on former West Virginia teammates Pacman Jones and Chris Henry. "We must protect the integrity of the NFL," the commissioner said in a statement.

In sending Pacman packing for the 2007 season and suspending Henry for the first eight games, Goodell transformed the former West Virginia teammates into poster boys for sanctions that await such recalcitrance under an NFL personal conduct policy with more teeth.

And in so doing, Goodell served notice that he has more than filled the shoes of his highly respected predecessor.

The blindfold that often blurred the vision of commissioner Paul Tagliabue is gone. Tagliabue is a good man, but he also is an attorney and often fretted more over due process than enunciating a can-do policy of punishment against repeat offenders. Also gone, it seems, are any bindings that once tied the hands of the commissioner and limited the scope of his ability to maintain the integrity of the league.

Tagliabue's style was to allow such issues to dangle, to leave them unresolved by the NFL until they were first resolved by the court system. By comparison, Goodell, all too aware of a burgeoning problem and negative ramifications in the court of public opinion, is a veritable hanging judge.

Good for him.

For Jones and Henry, excellent players whose big off-the-field indiscretions easily outdistanced big plays they made on it, the punishment is deserved.

At the annual NFL meetings two weeks ago, Kansas City coach Herm Edwards, a noted hardliner, opined that the only remedy for repeat offenders like Jones and Henry was to deprive them the opportunity to play. Not to deprive them of their paychecks, mind you, although that will also be a part of their suspensions. But to take away from them the privilege of being able to compete.

For Jones and Henry, the next several months will reveal just how much the game means to them. It is a privilege, not a right, to play in the NFL. And now it's a privilege that the two players will be forced to earn back.

Elements such as due process, court proceedings, personal and civil rights, deliberation before decision -- those are all estimable notions, at least in theory. In application, however, they have too often failed the NFL. Given the events of the past year or so, the league can't afford such failures. And so Goodell has taken off the blinders, loosened the shackles, and gotten exponentially tougher.

The line that Jones and Henry must now toe has been widened and straightened. In writing, Goodell cautioned both players that there is no more margin for error, no excuses, no more chances, no way back but to comply with the very strict conditions that will allow them at some point to apply for reinstatement.

Most important, there is no ambiguity. Fail to adhere to the conditions laid out for each of the players, and they will have frittered away their careers. And, given the manner in which they have conducted themselves, no one is apt to feel sorry for Jones or Henry if they fall shy in their compliance and fail to make it back to the NFL. They've been misbehaving for too long and, if they can't reverse course, neither will be missed.

It wouldn't mark the first time someone has squandered such talent. But maybe, if enough players heed the message sent Tuesday, it'll be closer to the last time.

Yet to weigh in on Tuesday's decision, at least as this column was being hammered out, was the NFL Players Association. It has tacitly supported the concept of tougher sanctions but hinted it might contest any ruling it deemed excessive. The union and executive director Gene Upshaw might want to think long and hard before waging a battle over punishment handed down in the Jones and Henry cases.

For one thing, the early public response to Goodell's actions is favorable. Second, are Jones and Henry the kind of players for whom the NFLPA really wants to fight? Probably not, at least given the distaste fans even in their own cities have demonstrated toward them.

In describing Goodell recently, Atlanta Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall, one of several players who has expressed to the commissioner his concerns over the level of misconduct in the league, termed him "the new sheriff in town." It is not a handle warmly embraced by Goodell, who has witnessed the arrests of more than 50 players and coaches since the start of the 2006 season.

But forced into the dual role of having to first make the laws and then enact them, Goodell, the son of a former U.S. senator, has demonstrated adroitness in both areas. And as the reluctant but ready new sheriff, he has earned a gold star in his first showdown.

People often overlook that, while Lady Justice holds that set of scales in her left hand, her right hand is clutching a double-edged sword.

On Tuesday afternoon, Roger Goodell went with the right hand and made the right decision for his league.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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