Someone needs to give NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a hug. Or a shoulder to cry on.
In the last week alone, he has been rocked by an unfavorable ruling in Bountygate, criticism of the league's drunk driving policy and questions about players' gun ownership. Litigation on concussions and tweaks to player-safety rules are ongoing concerns.
The calendar can't flip to 2013 fast enough for Goodell. Next year can't be any worse ... unless New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma wins his defamation lawsuit.
Maybe that's why Goodell has mentioned ideas like expanding the playoff field and eliminating kickoffs. Talking about such things helps to deflect attention from the league's mess. But it doesn't decrease the stench.
Not all of it is Goodell's fault. Dallas Cowboys lineman Josh Brent's blood alcohol level reportedly was more than twice the legal limit during a car accident last weekend that called teammate Jerry Brown. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 10,000 people were killed in drunk driving crashes last year, an average of about 27 deaths per day.
Brown's death renewed scrutiny on the league's stance on alcohol. Earlier this season, Atlanta Falcons halfback Michael Turner was arrested for driving under the influence, following a Monday Night Football game. He was in the starting lineup, as usual, the next Sunday.
But the NFL is no different than our general culture when it comes to lax attitudes toward punishing drunk drivers. Only 17 states require alcohol-ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers. The other 33 give you at least one more chance without the apparatus and hope you don't kill someone.
Goodell suspended wideout Donte Stallworth for the 2009 season based on his guilty plea in a DUI manslaughter case in which a construction worker was killed. Goodell's predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, suspended St. Louis Rams defensive end Leonard Little for eight games in 1999 for a similar case. But fatalities shouldn't be the trigger for NFL action; stiffer sanctions should be issued before that.
"I don't think it's a secret that we've long felt that discipline in this area needs to be revisited and escalated on a first offense and a second offense," Goodell told reporters Wednesday after NFL owners' meetings in Irving, Texas. "Hopefully that never happens — but I think it's very important to have that."
He just needs the players' union to sign off. Both sides agreed on four-game suspensions for performance-enhancing drugs; a similar penalty shouldn't be out of the question for DUI convictions, which pose a significant threat to others.
The consequences of gun ownership can be far-reaching, too, as the NFL was reminded this month when Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and then himself. That led to a USA Today report that roughly 75 percent of NFL players own guns, compared with 40 percent to 45 percent of households in the general population, according to the National Rifle Association.
Goodell can prohibit the presence of guns on NFL property, but he can't stop employees from purchasing them (nor should he have that right).
Unlike the free car service that's available whenever players believe they've had too much to drink, Goodell can't provide armed guards for every player's home and late-night excursion. He can only hope his gun-owning players behave responsibly and follow all laws. Sports Illustrated's Peter King reports that at least seven players surrendered their guns in the wake of Belcher's murder-suicide.
Goodell can blame problems with guns and alcohol on society in general. But Bountygate is a self-inflicted headache that's throbbing worse than since Tagliabue vacated the suspensions Goodell issued to four current and former Saints players.
Although the NFL claimed victory based on a reasonable interpretation of the 22-page ruling, Tagliabue essentially body-slammed Goodell on the player discipline portion, heaping the blame on team officials.
"I fundamentally disagree that this is something that lies just with coaches and management," Goodell said. "I do think their leadership position needs to be considered, but I also believe these players were in leadership positions, also."
Refusing to apologize, vowing to continue operating as he alone sees fit, Goodell appears petty and small. The collective bargaining agreement gives him all power as judge, jury and executioner (not to mention the hearer of appeals), and that's the players' fault. But Tagliabue's ruling left a chink in Goodell's armor, proof positive that he can be wrong like anyone else.
He erred in his handling of the Saints' pay-for-play system. He erred in his excessive punishment of the players, including Scott Fujita, who was exonerated. He erred in not reconsidering during the appeal process. Mistakes happen, but he's acting like he didn't make any, acting like nothing has changed and he's still the great Oz.
He's not. But someone needs to wrap their arms around him and tell him everything will be OK.
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