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Blame for mess NFL finds itself in must start with Goodell

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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It was December, and the clock was still ticking. Yes, remember when there was still a labor clock? There was hope Laborgeddon could be avoided. Roger Goodell met with a small group of fans in Foxborough, Mass., and was asked if peace could be brokered.

Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue would not have allowed the labor situation to reach its current point. (Getty Images)  
Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue would not have allowed the labor situation to reach its current point. (Getty Images)  
"I think it's critically important to avoid" a work stoppage, Goodell said in remarks to the media after his talk with fans. "We need to have a system that works for everybody, but I think everybody would agree that what's most important is football, and that we should work very hard to avoid that."

When Goodell took over for Paul Tagliabue as commissioner in September of 2006, his sole job in many ways was to avoid the disastrous circumstances the league faces today. Obviously, he failed.

It's not a coincidence the NFL is experiencing its first work stoppage in nearly a quarter of a century during the Reign of Goodell.

Goodell is a good man with solid intentions. But his reputation for heavy-handedness with the players over the past few years -- the excessive punishments, the harsh suspensions -- led to a level of distrust that carried into negotiations, several players say.

The distrust in Goodell has been building for years -- not weeks -- and the failed talks were a symptom. As Goodell suspended players for entire seasons, union player reps watched. As Goodell sometimes displayed an attitude that he was a king and they were serfs, players watched. As Goodell and the owners asked for a cool $1 billion refund without giving a detailed explanation why a league swimming in an orgy of cash was suddenly broke, they watched some more. When Carolina owner Jerry Richardson was condescending in meetings with the players they ... watched.

After the bungled attempt to use television money as a lockout fund became public, anger and distrust, building for some time in the player ranks, mixed into a highly volatile brew, several players said in interviews with CBSSports.com over the past week. The distance between Goodell and some players may in fact now be impossible to close.

There was one example of that anger after mediation collapsed. In a news conference, league lawyer Jeff Pash stated a litany of things owners were said to have offered the players. One person close to the players association responded bluntly: "Pash lies and Goodell isn't doing [expletive] about it." A player added: "Pash is standing there saying things he knows aren't true, and Roger is right there, not stopping it."

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"Jeff Pash lied," NFLPA lawyer Jim Quinn said. "Jeff Pash lied to the players, he lied to the fans."

Criticism of Goodell is mostly muted in the press, because unlike Tagliabue, the current commissioner has an extraordinarily friendly relationship with many in the football media.

In fairness to Goodell, it does take two to get a deal done. But Goodell and the owners clearly took the hard-ass route, and doing so with a bunch of athletes who compete for a living, failing to realize their testosterone levels would rise considerably, was a huge mistake.

This doesn't mean Goodell should have caved. It just means he took a different approach from Tagliabue, and it didn't work.

NFLPA leader DeMaurice Smith is different from predecessor Gene Upshaw and Goodell is different from Tagliabue, so it's difficult to compare one set of leaders to another. Still, Tagliabue was adept at keeping the anger and distrust at minimal levels when dealing with the union. One former union rep compared Tagliabue to Bill Clinton (minus the bimbo eruptions) in that Tagliabue could get almost anyone to listen to his viewpoint.

The odd thing about Tagliabue's legacy (he should be in the Hall of Fame) is that the media portrayed him as a cold automaton. Privately, he was anything but. Tagliabue gained Upshaw's trust while Goodell never truly earned Smith's.

Tagliabue accomplished two things Goodell couldn't. First, Tagliabue didn't try to steamroll the players. Second, he kept the angry owners away from the process. Most of the meetings with Upshaw involved small groups of negotiating teams. There was more communication. There was also more give and take.

I'm absolutely convinced that if Tagliabue was commissioner, a deal would've been consummated. There's no question about it.

Now, everything moves to the court system. It should have never gone this far and hasn't for many years. But here we are. Here we go. There is plenty of blame, but Goodell's primary mission was to stop this.

And he failed.

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