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Fair or not, Goodell's image with players taking a beating

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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One player called NFL commissioner Roger Goodell "a jerk." Another said Goodell's unwillingness to corral owners sooner during the labor dispute is the reason the lockout lasted so long. Another player explained if he saw Goodell now he might not shake his hand.

One player told CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco that Goodell needs to "drop his nuts." This echoes the most common complaint against the commissioner from players, which is that he hasn't been a bipartisan leader during the lockout.

Then there was this text from a player: "It will take some time for Roger Goodell to repair the damage to player relationships that was done during the lockout."

Roger Goodell, getting chummy at the draft with Redskins pick Ryan Kerrigan, isn't really an ogre. (Getty Images)  
Roger Goodell, getting chummy at the draft with Redskins pick Ryan Kerrigan, isn't really an ogre. (Getty Images)  
None of this is totally fair, of course. Goodell is not to blame for the lockout. The lockout was a jointly engaged disaster with plenty of hubris and greed to go around. No one man, even one as powerful as Goodell, is to blame.

Yet as the lockout rests peacefully on its death bed, doctors feeling the wrist and detecting a weak pulse, one thing is clear: Goodell will have to repair his image with a significant portion of his player base. If you doubt that, you haven't been listening to enough players.

It will be Goodell's most important post-lockout mission. He wasn't liked before the lockout by a number of players, who thought his disciplinary actions were far too draconian and his stances inflexible. Such opinions have only hardened.

There are 1,900 players and a few expressing anger at Goodell doesn't mean that all are infuriated with the commissioner. It also has to be noted that in many ways Goodell has been extremely player-friendly during his tenure. Some players will guffaw at that description but it's accurate. He formed the first Player Advisory Council with the late Gene Upshaw and it was in those dealings that Goodell became close friends with player leaders Jeff Saturday and Tony Richardson, among others.

Perhaps most importantly, it was Goodell who made the big push to get to where we are now on the labor front: on the verge of an agreement both sides can live with.

What Goodell and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith also did was mute the hardliners on their respective sides. This is a vital but little-discussed fact about the lockout.

Overall, and there's no question about this: Goodell is a good person.

But Goodell still has a great deal of work to do once the agreement is made, and some of that is because of self-inflicted wounds. He can be extremely arrogant with players, like in March when he encouraged the wrath of many veterans by sending a letter directly to players outlining the NFL's offer. Seattle Seahawks guard Chester Pitts told players to burn it.

Goodell has stressed how much he cares about the health of players but when speaking to San Diego Chargers season-ticket holders, he cynically challenged the commonly held belief the career of an NFL player lasts a little more than three years, saying it was longer.

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The dislike of Goodell by some actually started a year ago. When it was clear the talks about the new collective bargaining agreement would be tense, Goodell began speaking to players during his visits to training camps and team facilities, explaining the position of the owners.

In many of those visits Goodell would be confronted by angry players who didn't believe Goodell's claims that the owners were losing money. Goodell was challenged almost camp to camp in what were at times heated meetings.

The lockout has not only reinforced the distrust some players felt, but intensified it, I'm told.

We've seen public examples of this when Baltimore's Derrick Mason called Goodell a "joke" and Pitts called him "a fraud."

"Does he have a problem with getting the players' respect? Absolutely," linebacker Scott Fujita, a member of the NFLPA's executive committee, told Yahoo! Sports. "No matter what happens, it might be tough for him to ever get that back. However this is resolved, I can't say every player, but the overwhelming majority will continue to have a problem with him. And that's too bad."

When a deal is struck it's possible all the hard feelings will dissipate in the euphoria of everyone making Bill Gates money.

It's also possible the bitterness lingers and Goodell will have to work just as hard gaining the trust of the players as he did at ending the lockout.

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