Weird. Even as the players’ association seeks to curb Roger Goodell’s power, the NFL commissioner is turning into the players’ best friend. The NFLPA just argued — and lost the argument — that Goodell lacked the authority to punish four New Orleans Saints in the egregious bounty program. In its defense of those four, the NFLPA overlooked a key detail:
The folks those Saints were trying to injure? They’re NFL players, too.
The Saints might not have been the worst offenders in the history of professional football, but they’re the best example available at a difficult time. The NFL is facing a torrent of lawsuits from former players who claim the league was negligent in its safeguarding of their health. Which leads us to note that the safeguarding of its membership’s health is usually the job of a union.
These class-action suits have the potential to damage the NFL in a way no strike/lockout ever has. Regarding pro football, we on the periphery have long been cognitively dissonant: We know the game is dangerous, but we watch because all those collisions are vastly entertaining. (To us, if not the men involved.) Hearing the details of former players’ declining well-being could make us reconsider whether our momentary enjoyment is worth the non-negotiable price they’ve paid.
In the attempt to get on the good side of a bad issue, Goodell has made a crusade against unnecessary roughness. Not that his definition of unnecessary would have flown in the days of Deacon Jones and his head-slap or Jack Tatum — title of his autobiography: “They Call Me Assassin” — and his head shots.
Somebody should have been looking out for the recipients of those hits back then. Nobody was. The NFLPA has long been the weakest of the sports unions. Its stock in trade is to decertify itself whenever its players get locked out and try to win in court what it cannot at the bargaining table. Sports fans bemoan the power that the baseball players’ union has come to wield — heck, Ryan Braun just got a steroid ban overturned — but nobody can ever accuse the MLBPA of not looking out for its members.
It’s easy to say that there would have been fewer concussions over the decades if the NFL players had hired Marvin Miller, who helped rid baseball of its oppressive “reserve clause,” to represent them, but it’s also true. The NFL has never had a Marvin Miller or a Donald Fehr to stand up for his players and to face down a powerful commissioner. (And the NFL, it must be noted, has nothing but powerful commissioners.) The odd part is that Goodell, who delights in flexing his authority in a way that even Pete Rozelle did not, has become the players’ chief ally.
The players he has fined/suspended don’t see it that way. (Their kneejerk response: Goodell is trying to sissify what used to be a man’s game.) But no player could fail to feel a chill when hearing that Junior Seau, among the fiercest players ever, had killed himself at age 43.
Let’s stipulate that the baseball players’ union did little to curb the apparent-t0-almost-everyone-else rise of steroid use, and that it resisted proposals for effective drug testing until it became clear that drug testing had to be done. Still, there’s a difference between injecting a steroid into yourself and slugging someone else in the head with a bat, which is the rough equivalent of what NFL players do to one another on a weekly basis. Taking steroids was a personal decision. The brutality of pro football is a corporate concern, and soon there stands to be corporate liability.
Alas, not soon enough. There’s no way to redo the ’60s and ’70s and equip those players with stronger helmets and better padding. (Incredibly, the NFLPA isn’t sure it wants the NFL-mandated thigh and knee pads.) There’s only tomorrow, and the blunt-spoken Goodell is making it his business to see that the players of today don’t face the same grim tomorrows that too many former NFL’ers have.
Yes, it’s odd. It’s as if the push for seat belts had been led not by the consumer advocate Ralph Nader but by the car manufacturers themselves. It’s as if Big Tobacco had said, “Know what? We do put too much tar and nicotine in these things.” I’m not sure we’ve ever seen any captain of commerce try to do as Goodell is doing, but bully for him.
By Mark Bradley