NFL players fed up with Roger Goodell, strike threat real

By Ira Miller, The Sports Xchange  |  Aug. 25, 2016 at 11:48 AM
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At least one team's player rep went on record this week warning NFL players to begin preparing for a strike - even though the league's current Collective Bargaining Agreement does not expire for nearly five years.

Can there be a clearer vote of no confidence in the leadership of commissioner Roger Goodell?

Goodell has spent the last few years lurching from one crisis to another, from Ray Rice to Adrian Peterson, from steroids to supplements, from under-inflated footballs to over-inflated egos, and still, too often, we do not know what the penalty is for a particular act, or even if there is one, until after the fact.

There have been ample signs that the leadership of the NFL Players Association is at odds, to put it mildly, with Goodell over his handling of player discipline. The suggestion has been made, repeatedly, that he ought to recuse himself from that particular task and turn it over to a neutral party who is not beholden to the owners who sign his check.

The suggestion has been consistently ignored, and the latest result is the warning from Steelers guard Ramon Foster, the team's player rep. Foster went public after two teammates were suspended because of substance abuse issues, but what he said was that "there are bigger issues than pot."

Recalling the lockout after the 2010 season that led to the current CBA, which players believe is slanted in favor of the owners, Foster said the players have to "hit (the owners) in the pocket" in the next negotiations.

"Money always talks," he said. "For us to do that, we have to save on our end. We can't be just blowing money and not realize what's coming, especially with guys coming into the league now."

Of course, the problem with telling players in 2016 to prepare for a lockout or strike in 2021 is that most of the 2016 players will be out of the league by then, given that the average career length is less than four years.

Nonetheless, Foster predicted a labor dispute was brewing, adding, "They've hired certain people on their legal team, the NFL has, and we have to be the type of players and union that's not borrowing money from banks and stuff like that to survive a lockout, a strike.

"That can't happen this time around. We have to be smarter this time around because there are a lot of things we're going to be fighting for, and a lot of things they are going to want and we're going to want, too."

The question, however, as always, is whether the players can remain unified over a demand to force the commissioner to relinquish some of his power when history tells us his power affects only a very small percentage of the players in the league. In the past, the players have given up on that demand in return for some other accommodation, and we're a long way away from finding out if the issue of player discipline has grown in importance enough for the players to unify over it.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about all of this, however, is how with the money continuing to pour through the NFL at record levels, with salaries and television revenue rising, with the game's popularity continuing to reach record levels, there remains this undercurrent of distrust and dislike between the people who play the game and the people who run the game.

You could never hope to hold out Goodell's predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, as the ideal commissioner - not with the drip of revelations about concussions, among other things - but Tagliabue never engendered the distrust among the workers that Goodell does.

One prime reason for that is because Tagliabue forged a close alliance with the late Hall of Fame guard Gene Upshaw, the head of the players union, and the two men had each other's trust, and the backing of their constituents.

Goodell has not formed any kind of a partnership with DeMaurice Smith, who succeeded Upshaw as the players union head.

Now, and this is just amateur psychology talking here, maybe there's an explanation for this dichotomy.

Tagliabue never really sought the NFL commissionership. He just happened to be available when a group of newer owners got into a snit because a group of older owners tried to force Jim Finks, a long-time team executive, down their throats as the successor to Pete Rozelle. He already had a high-profile spot as the league's lead attorney, and probably would have been content remaining in that role. In other words, he had no ego tied up in the job and so he was more interested in building bridges to the players than flexing his muscle.

On the other hand, Goodell is an NFL lifer, and the commissioner's gig represents the apex of his dreams.

He has said more than once his key goal is to protect the NFL's shield, the league logo, and it's clear he regards that shield as the province of the owners, with the players simply transient employees.

His actions have made it clear, repeatedly, that the power of the office is important to him, and thus he has set an early red line for the next negotiation with the players.

--Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than six decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.

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