Roger Goodell wields a whole lot of power.
Per the bylaws, the commissioner has "full, complete, and final jurisdiction and authority to arbitrate" any dispute between nearly any two people connected to the NFL.
Goodell can "incur any expense which, at his sole discretion, is necessary to conduct and transact the ordinary business of the League." The commissioner also has "general supervision" of NFL business and affairs.
The NFL's PR department operates under Goodell's "exclusive control and direction." All television and broadcast rights are sold under Goodell's "exclusive authority."
Goodell also has the power to select game officials; all 32 teams must accept whatever officials he designates to work their games.
Most importantly, Goodell has the unilateral power to discipline just about anyone connected to the league for "conduct detrimental to the League." He can fine up them to up to half-a-million dollars. He can also suspend them, terminate their contract or award and reassign or forfeit draft picks.
If the commissioner finds any of those punishments insufficient, he can, with the okay of the owners:
- Strip an owner of their franchise.
- Strip a partial owner of their stake in a franchise.
- Make players under contract with an offending club free agents.
- Reassign players' contracts with an offending club to another team.
- Reassign drafted players not yet under contract, or players on a reserve list, of an offending club to another team.
- Reassign an offending club's stadium lease or playing field to another team.
If the commissioner exercises any of these punishments, once they're approved by the owners, they become "final, conclusive and unappealable."
"Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely."
- John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton
There's a reason this excerpt of Lord Acton's 1887 letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton is still quoted today: Human nature doesn't change.
The commissioner is supposed to be a person of "unquestioned integrity" selected and employed by the owners of the League. But Goodell's increasingly wild use of his power is bringing his integrity into question.
Goodell's been talking out of both sides of his mouth on issues like player safety, referee lockouts, 18-game schedules and European expansion for years. Worse than that, Goodell's capricious and vindictive enforcement of his Player Conduct Policy is making it look like he's playing favorites (or, as the case may be, un-favorites).
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been disproportionately fined and suspended for dirty play under Goodell, and it hasn't escaped their notice. The Steelers were the only team not to ratify the 2011 collective bargaining agreement that got the league back on the field—and gave Goodell unprecedented power over player discipline.
"[Goodell] was a major, major issue in this locker room," Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch told ESPN The Magazine's Kyle Van Valkenburg. "The power we were giving him was at the top of our issues."
Worst of all, of course, was Goodell's years-long investigation and persecution of the New Orleans Saints. After chasing a tip that the Saints were running an unusually extravagant pay-to-injure bounty program, Goodell hit several Saints coaches and players with massive suspensions and/or fines.
Under the CBA, Goodell was the only person who could hear the Saints' appeal of their punishments. But after an awful lot of legal wrangling and some consultation with the players' union, Goodell "recused" himself from hearing the appeal—and appointed his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, to hear the proceedings.
The result? All the player discipline was overturned, and in his decision Tagliabue gently chided Goodell for handling the situation like a haughty dictator, rather than a benevolent steward of the game:
In this context, confronted with the events here, Commissioner Goodell correctly set out aggressively to address them. But when an effort to change a culture rests heavily on prohibitions, and discipline and sanctions that are seen as selective, ad hoc or inconsistent, then people in all industries are prone to react negatively — whether they be construction workers, police officers or football players. They will push back and challenge the discipline as unwarranted. As reflected in the record in the present appeals, they will deny, hide behind a code of silence, destroy evidence and obstruct. In other words, rightly or wrongly, a sharp change in sanctions or discipline can often be seen as arbitrary and as an impediment rather than an instrument of change. This is what we see on the record here.
Judging by Goodell's response, the lesson went unlearned:
What is clear is there were violations of the bounty rules. That’s not just my opinion and our facts. It’s been supported by everyone who has looked at it, including Commissioner Tagliabue. That doesn’t belong in the game of football. And that’s something we’ve made very clear. We didn’t look for this. But when it occurs, you’ve got to deal with it and make sure there is no misunderstanding that everybody is accountable.
So what can be done about this? Well, the league and players have worked out a few procedural checks and balances.
Fines and suspensions for on-field violations are often levied by former player (and current NFL VP of Operations) Merton Hanks. Those fines and suspensions can be appealed to a two-person panel, currently comprised of former coaches Ted Cottrell and Art Shell; they're jointly appointed and paid by the NFL and NFLPA.
This is a good start.
The next step? Applying the same principles to off-field incidents: Have the NFL and NFLPA hire someone not named Roger Goodell to levy fines and suspensions for misbehavior, and jointly appoint an impartial appeals panel.
Then? Transparency and accountability.
Goodell serves the owners; they picked him to run the league to serve their best interest. But the way he approaches his job (and pushes against the boundaries of his power) leaves his motives open for interpretation.
He's trying to protect the public reputation of the league, but with his apparently random, knee-jerk overreactions, he's destroying it.
At every step of the Bountygate case, Goodell acted and spoke like someone with a personal vendetta against the Saints—or a dictator more concerned with proving what he says goes than doing the right thing.
Instead of sending a secret memo about cracking down on bounties, then skulking around for tips for years, then handing down unprecedented punishments for "crimes" of which most NFL teams are guilty, Goodell could have just told people.
What would have stopped Goodell from bringing the issue to light years ago, admitting it's been a part of NFL culture for decades and vowing to start changing that culture? Then coaches, players and fans alike would have been well aware: A coach-run pay-for-injure program would draw huge penalties.
Tagliabue had it right: "A sharp change in sanctions or discipline can often be seen as arbitrary and as an impediment rather than an instrument of change." Goodell says there needs to be "no misunderstanding that everybody is accountable," but he can't say that if he refuses to be held accountable.