December 15, 2012 at 1:00 am

Jerry Green

Roger Goodell faces mutiny over the bounties

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell hasn't emerged in a favorable light from the investigation into the New Orleans Saints bounty scheme. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Roger Goodell is a mighty tough dude. He is charged with trying to control a league that is basically out of control.

The NFL has become a league of battering rams and battered brains, a league of cheap shots and expensive athletes. It is a league afflicted more and more with bloodshed — killings and death. It is a league distressed by suicides from so many of its head-shocked former athletes and now even by a current player.

All this negativity while Goodell is running — or trying to run — the most addictive sport in the world.

And the sport soars in its popularity among the masses. Just gander at the painted crazies yelping in front of the TV cameras any Monday night.

Every weekend's ratings from September into February top anything else Television-America is able to offer.

An oversized mug shot of Goodell cuddling a football graces the cover of this past week's TIME magazine, a publication that itself has become undersized.

There is a two-word caption in glaring, italic red letters — "THE ENFORCER" — all capital letters.

Pro football! The favorite entertainment of the masses.

We love it — and condemn it.

And currently Goodell is condemned as a loser.

Rebuilding process

He is fresh from being put down by his predecessor as commissioner of the NFL, Paul Tagliabue.

Tagliabue ruled this past week that, yeah, the New Orleans Saints were guilty as charged of trying deliberately to crumble and maul opposing players such as Brett Favre. In the same finding, Tagliabue ruled, yeah, the athletes who committed such misdeeds should be freed from various suspensions that Goodell had ordered.

Tagliabue, under whose commissionership pro football flourished, has a legal background.

So he found the Saints — their hierarchy — guilty of planned criminal activity and exonerated the perpetrators of the crimes.

In essence, Tagliabue repudiated THE ENFORCER.

A loser!

Goodell, in his seven-season tenure as commissioner, has aroused the enmity of the players and then of the game officials. He openly is an owners' commissioner.

"If you want to do the popular thing, be a cheerleader," Goodell told TIME in a character-revealing quote.

Two years before the lockout of players at training-camp time in 2011 he publicly challenged the NFL Players Association to submit to his version of a collective bargaining agreement.

Or else.

Goodell has veered, sharply, from precedent — the NFL's prior governing patterns.

The commissioners of the NFL have been admirable men. From Bert Bell to Pete Rozelle, who became commissioner after 23 ballots among the franchise owners. From Rozelle, who envisioned the lucrative magic of television and the blossoming passion of the people, to Tagliabue. From Tagliabue, who wisely and peacefully built on the NFL's popularity that Rozelle had captured, to Goodell.

And now Goodell, who is attempting reconstruct the sport that Rozelle's creativity built.

Pro football has become a sport that needs to be reconstructed.

And it has been beset by problems that Goodell cannot control:

The hard helmet-to-helmet hits resulting in an epidemic of concussions. A few Sundays ago NFL viewers watched three starting quarterbacks — Jay Cutler, Michael Vick and Alex Smith — driven from games due to concussions.

The dementia-driven suicides of a bevy of former NFL players — Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling and others.

Plus the lawsuits against the NFL by relatives of the victims.

Two work stoppages, contrived and controlled by Goodell. The lockout of the players last year and of the officials in 2012.

The players and Goodell finally settled with the mere cancellation of some exhibition games last year. But this season, early games with inexperienced officials dropping yellow flags turned into lampoons before settlement.

And also there was the Saints' bounty scandal, an ongoing battle testing Goodell's authority.

It was this bounty program that brought Tagliabue back into pro football fray.


Tagliabue served the NFL without emotion, without too much controversy.

Goodell took over in 2006 and became a terror in the office. He had started his employment with the league in 1982 as an intern and steadily worked his way through a series of promotions.

He was Rozelle's protégé. Yet Goodell, during his reign, has lacked the suave, friendly demeanor of Rozelle. Goodell operates with a fervor that had been foreign to both Rozelle and Tagliabue.

Goodell entered the commissionership as a tough guy and has remained tough. His penalties meted out to the Saints were tough — and perhaps done too hastily.

Sean Payton, the head coach whose skilled tactics won the Saints a Super Bowl, was suspended for the entire 2012 season. General manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for a half season. Assistant head coach — and currently acting head coach — Joe Vitt received a six-game suspension.

And ex-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams remains suspended indefinitely by Goodell.

Four players got it, most notably linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Goodell suspended Vilma for the entire 2012 season. Former Saints defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita, currently with the Browns, received lesser suspensions.

Due to appeals none of the player suspensions was administered.

Goodell's toughness and his severe enforcement were questioned in federal court.

Ultimately, Goodell brought Tagliabue, his even-minded predecessor, in as an arbitrator.

Tagliabue, after more than a month of hearings, ruled that Goodell was right — and that he was wrong. And as the onetime peace commissioner, Tagliabue vacated the suspensions of Vilma and the others — in a swirl of fog.

"My affirmation of Commissioner Goodell's findings would certainly justify the issuance of fines," Tagliabue said in a transcript issued by the NFL. "However, the entire case has been contaminated by coaches and others in the Saints' organization."

Goodell, characteristically defiant, told journalists in Dallas that he disagreed with Tagliabue's findings.

It is my finding — after digesting the pros and cons of the bounty scandal, the concussion issues, the bloodshed and TV replays of stomps and kicks to the groin — that pro football needs an enforcer. More than cheerleaders!

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter.

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