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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Players, critics way off mark targeting Goodell

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I've known NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for roughly 20 years. It's not the type of relationship where I hang out in his office, or he gives me the news tips of the week, but rather a courteous, no-nonsense relationship of respect.

I first met Goodell when I was covering the expansion process for the Florida Times-Union when the city of Jacksonville was seeking a team. Goodell was the point man for the league on expansion matters, so a group of us reporters from the cities seeking franchises in the early 1990s came to see Goodell as our conduit to expansion information. He was about our age, and we considered him our guy.

We even came up with a nickname for him:

"The boy who would be commissioner."

At the end of the day, Roger Goodell has 32 bosses he must answer to. (Getty Images)  
At the end of the day, Roger Goodell has 32 bosses he must answer to. (Getty Images)  
Goodell didn't warm to the name much. From what I heard, he never wanted to be perceived as a man angling for the job, fearful that his desire for the job would turn into a knock against him.

"It was almost like he was one of the guys [and girls]," said St Louis Post-Dispatch writer Jim Thomas, who followed the expansion trail in the early 1990s. "[He was] very bright but very unpretentious. The small group of reporters that covered the lengthy expansion process used to tease him with regularity that someday he would be NFL commissioner. I don't think he really liked hearing that from us, but he laughed about it."

Even so, the job seemed to fit. It seemed to be Goodell's dream job.

So how come it's become a nightmare?

Goodell has been caught in the labor web, a face of the owners, the man the players have seemingly come to hate.

Why has Roger Goodell become enemy No. 1? Why do fans boo him during draft night? Why do players rip him constantly, sometimes maliciously?

I just don't get it.

Just remember: Goodell works for the owners. Any venom directed at him is misguided. Blame the owners. Goodell has influence, but he doesn't have a vote.

Yet the players have put up a Roger Goodell poster at the end of the range and seemingly emptied their clips into him. Somebody made the point that it's easier to bash the commissioner than one of the men who will sign your checks when the labor mess is remedied. That might be true, but the player venom coming at Goodell is more dangerous than that of a sea snake.

Players have called him a "liar" and a "fraud." Oh, and a "joke." One player carried it a bit too far in a recent column by Mike Silver of Yahoo Sports!. He was unnamed of course.

"A lot of the players hated him even before this went down, and now they really hate him," one prominent player for an NFC East team told Silver. "He's not smooth, charming or witty. He never seems honest when he talks to you. And he's a dope. They should change his name to Roger Goon-dell."

A dope? Goodell? He is a lot of things, but dumb isn't one of them. Can he be perceived as being arrogant at times? Yes. Can he come off combative at times? Yes. Dumb? Why even acknowledge that?

I'd put my money on "Goon-dell" against that player on a Wonderlic test or even better: In the game of common sense.

When Goodell was booed on draft night, looking oh-so-uncomfortable on the stage, players rejoiced. They insist that Goodell is trying to hurt them.

Last time I checked, Goodell doesn't have a vote on league matters. If the players want to blame anybody, blame Jerry Jones, Bob Kraft, Jerry Richardson and the rest of the league's owners.

We haven't heard one venomous thing slung in the direction of an owner by a named player or not.

It's Goodell this, Goodell that. The fans followed the players' stupidity when they booed him at the podium.

"I am a little surprised that he's taking such a beating over the current labor dispute," Thomas said. "But I think if DeMaurice Smith had stepped up to the podium to announce the picks on Day 1 of the draft, he would've been booed, too. The fans just want football, and can't understand why things have been allowed to get this far."

Goodell was asked about the booing after the draft on a conference call with Jets ticket holders.

"It's the fans frustration and I understand that," he said. "They want football. You want football, I presume. I want football. I think that everyone is frustrated by the circumstances and I think that was a clear indication of it. I understand their frustration with me not being able to solve that. The reality is that's my job and that's my responsibility, so I accept it."

His job is to act as a point man on these matters. But if he were to accept any deal offered by the players, it has to be run by the owners for their approval. A vote would be taken. If Goodell wanted a deal, and the owners didn't, no deal. It's as simple as that.

He can't just make this all go away.

I've seen some columnists go so far as to call for Goodell's head because of this current labor situation. That's as dumb as calling him dumb.

You keep hearing how the players no longer respect him. Then you saw drafted players pulling Goodell into warm embraces on stage on draft night. The current players will forget as well, even if their militant stance is that he is the one taking food off their table.

Goodell's job is to try to facilitate a deal between the league's players and the owners. He is the man in the middle, but don't hate him for being the supposed "face of the lockout."

Goodell did send out an e-mail letter to all of the league's players in March outlining the deal the league's owners were offering and imploring the players to get the union back to negotiating. That didn't sit well with the rank-and-file.

"I know some players who sent it back and told him never to e-mail them again," one player said. "They were pissed."

I will say this: You can see the pressure of this all over his face. Goodell usually has a sneaky, sly sense of humor, but I imagine it's hard to see that now. One time, he came up behind me at a game and flicked my ear.

"You can't do that anymore," I told him. "You are the commissioner now."

He laughed.

At the league meetings this year, I asked him if he had spent his $1 salary yet, which is what he's getting during the lockout.

"Nope, being frugal," he said. He laughed again.

That's who he is. You may see this button-down, business-only man, but I've seen the other side plenty of times since he was the point man on the expansion chase.

He may be commissioner now, and smack dab in the middle of the NFL's biggest crisis, but to some of us he's just 'The Boy who would be Commissioner.'

Now that he's there, I wonder if he could have imagined it would be as distasteful a job as it is now, with him being the lockout cause, however misguided that notion may be?

They say time heals all wounds. And I agree the anger coming at Goodell will pass as well when there is labor peace.

I just wish I understood the nastiness coming at him since he is nothing more than a point man for the 32 men who truly are on the opposite side of the players.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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