|Goodell has a history of reducing suspensions when he meets with players one on one. (US Presswire)|
In the face of mounting criticism in the Saints bounty case -- criticism about his power, about the quality of his evidence, about his very nature as a human being -- Roger Goodell made a tactical decision.
He decided to look back at his critics, mainly the players who have accused him of being everything from carrying a pitchfork and matches to stealing souls, and gave them this message: screw off.
That's the only way to interpret Goodell's powerful and stinging letter to the four Saints players who had their appeals rejected. That Goodell enforced his own suspensions of the players is not a shock. That he did so confidently, without a hint of backing down, without a hint of doubt, well, no matter your letter of cynicism about the process, that part is indeed interesting.
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There were team executives expecting Goodell to offer some sort of carrot, a smile instead of a bazooka. Maybe a reduced suspension or two. Um, no. Goodell's response was unabashedly thermonuclear. Or perhaps something you'd see in the Empire Strikes Back.
This is how gangsta Goodell went. One of the four Saints players, who asked not to be identified, told CBSSports.com that he learned the suspension was upheld not from Goodell or the NFL, but from the media.
"Stay classy, NFL," the player said.
Goodell wrote in part: "Throughout this entire process, including your appeals, and despite repeated invitations and encouragement to do so, none of you has offered any evidence that would warrant reconsideration of your suspensions. Instead, you elected not to participate meaningfully in the appeal process ..."
"Although you claimed to have been 'wrongfully accused with insufficient evidence,' your lawyers elected not to ask a single question of the principal investigators, both of whom were present at the hearing (as your lawyers had requested); you elected not to testify or to make any substantive statement, written or oral, in support of your appeal; you elected not to call a single witness to support your appeal; and you elected not to introduce a single exhibit addressing the merits of your appeal. Instead, your lawyers raised a series of jurisdictional and procedural objections that generally ignore the CBA, in particular its provisions governing 'conduct detrimental' determinations ..."
Even the one non slap-in-the-face moment where Goodell offers to reduce suspensions if players present exculpatory evidence isn't all that gracious. The players say they have done just that, and in the case of Jonathan Vilma especially, are in civil court, believing Goodell isn't a fair judge and jury.
This notion was evidenced by the union statement in response to Goodell's ruling: "The players are disappointed with the league's conduct during this process. We reiterate our concerns about the lack of fair due process, lack of integrity of the investigation and lack of the jurisdictional authority to impose discipline under the collective bargaining agreement. Moreover, the Commissioner took actions during this process that rendered it impossible for him to be an impartial arbitrator."
Clearly, Goodell disagrees. It's a remarkable thing to see, actually. Goodell is under fire from all sides. He's being sued, vilified as a dictator, mocked by some in the media, with the entire appellate process under attack, and there has been no hint of backing down. This is the irony of all this and the circular nature of it all, of the trust between the two sides, or lack thereof. The players didn't talk to Goodell during the appeals process because they don't want to recognize his power and believe that by speaking to Goodell they give up their rights to sue civilly. That's what they believe and they could be right.
I do think this. If the players had spoken to Goodell one-on-one, I'm convinced Goodell would have reduced their suspensions. I think Goodell wants to make a hardened point publicly, but if players acknowledge wrongdoing, he's open-minded.
There's precedent for this. Goodell reduced Ben Roethlisberger's suspension from six to four games after the Pittsburgh quarterback met with Goodell one-on-one, and Roethlisberger's actions were far more heinous. Goodell also allowed quarterback Mike Vick back into football despite his horrific acts. Pacman Jones was given a second chance.
But here we are instead. The fight goes on and Goodell continues to bring the big guns. Unabashedly.