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Vick comments to GQ, NFL ruling on Pryor put Goodell under microscope

Perhaps this is a handy lesson in why it's so tricky to play the role of commissioner and counselor at the same time. Maybe when Roger Goodell and Michael Vick talked about Vick's long-awaited return to the NFL in the summer of 2009, it was difficult for the soon-to-be-Philadelphia Eagle to tell the difference between helpful advice and official approval. Tacit or otherwise.

There's certainly a lot of gray area, and room for interpretation, in Thursday's GQ story that implies Vick was steered to Philadelphia by Goodell and other league "reps.'' There's no smoking gun quote from Vick in the story, nothing saying he signed with the Eagles -- and declined offers from other suitors such as Buffalo and Cincinnati -- because Goodell told him to do so. But there is a clear inference of just that result, to the point where the story's author wrote "after meeting with Commissioner Roger Goodell and other reps from the NFL, Vick was convinced -- and granted league approval -- to sign with Philly.''

By midday Thursday, Goodell's name was once again a hot-button issue in the NFL, thanks to both the Vick GQ story and the commissioner's controversial Terrelle Pryor ruling (more on that later). Both Vick and Goodell, through a league spokesman via ProFootballTalk.com, quickly refuted the notion that the commissioner influenced the process of Vick becoming an Eagle as it was portrayed in the magazine story. Ex-Colts head coach Tony Dungy, who acted as a league-appointed adviser for Vick, added his voice to the chorus, expressing doubt on the Dan Patrick Show that Goodell would have steered Vick to sign with Philadelphia.

But it's certainly plausible that the truth in this matter is far more nuanced than either the magazine or the subsequent denials capture. "Granted league approval'' is probably a heavy-handed phrase that misses the mark when compared to the reality of the situation. But Vick doesn't sound like he thought he was getting mere advice and input from Goodell and the league when he told GQ in that same paragraph: "I commend and thank them, because they put me in the right situation.'' I suppose it's all a matter of how you define the word "put'' in that sentence.

If there was some significant damage control being practiced on Thursday, you can certainly understand why. This is a potentially damaging story for any commissioner of any pro sports league. It's part of the job of a commissioner to deal with issues that challenge the integrity of the game, and matters of competitive fairness. But what if it's the commissioner who's found in violation of tipping the scales? Would Goodell immediately come out and fine himself for conduct detrimental to the game? And who does he appeal the punishment to?

Obviously it's not in the purview of a commissioner to help determine who plays where. Even the appearance of preferential treatment for one team over another -- or for that matter, one player over another -- strikes at the integrity of the game and the principle of competitive fairness that a commissioner is sworn to uphold and defend. And Goodell has certainly made his mark on those fronts since coming to office in 2006. His entire initiative on the league's personal conduct policy speaks to that.

Goodell deserves plenty of criticism if he stepped over the line and sought to influence Vick's decision of where to play after being released from prison, even if he did so believing he was acting in the best interest of Vick, in an almost completely unique set of circumstances. Vick wasn't just another player, with just another mid-career detour having been taken. But no matter. The commissioner has to be perceived as a fair and consistent referee of sorts, and that cannot be compromised even a little bit. Michael Vick, or no Michael Vick, he has to guard against the appearance that he's working behind the scenes to get the league's desired outcome.

Goodell's decision to allow Pryor to take part in next Monday's NFL's supplemental draft, but suspend him for the first five games of 2011, was the other screaming headline Thursday, and again the commissioner's reputation stands to take a potential hit in the process. Goodell based his suspension on Pryor making "decisions that undermine the integrity of the eligibility rules for the NFL Draft.''

That's shorthand for Goodell's belief that Pryor tried to game the system to a degree, using the supplemental draft as a way into the league in a manner it wasn't originally intended. Goodell tried to send a message to any future collegiate players who might try to follow Pryor's lead and attempt a similar path to the NFL, and in the same breath he was probably sending a message of solidarity with the NCAA and Ohio State, which had suspended Pryor for the first five games of 2011 for taking improper benefits.

But it's dangerous ground in that Goodell has now set a precedent with the Pryor ruling, and his judgment and decisions on punishment had best be in line with that standard going forward. Will he hand out discipline to every college player -- or head coach (hello, Pete Carroll?) -- who attempt to enter the league even while the cloud of alleged NCAA violations or illegalities still hang over their head? If not, it's only going to add to the charges that Goodell has wielded his considerable power too arbitrarily and inconsistently in some high-profile cases.

The irony here is that it would have been much easier for Goodell to do nothing in Pryor's case, other than allow him to take part in the supplemental draft. Every NFL talent-evaluator I've talked to sees Pryor as strictly a long-term project at quarterback, with one head coach last week telling me that Pryor might take two or three years to develop into a good NFL backup QB. So obviously some people in the league seem to think he's nowhere near taking the field in the opening five games of 2011.

But Goodell acted anyway, and the five-game suspension is what warranted the instant headlines. Interestingly, the NFL's players union opted to not appeal or contest the suspension, perhaps knowing that Pryor's immediate future in the league was not likely to include much game action anyway. The NFLPA got him draft eligible, and the only price was a slap on the wrist that amounts to much ado about nothing.

Goodell, of course, has plenty of a certain kind of history on his side in the Pryor decision. Commissioners generally have been granted wide-ranging and vaguely defined powers to do what they deemed in the best interest of their game. That's how we got an asterisk placed alongside Roger Maris' 61 home runs in 1961 (Commissioner Ford Frick) and it's how Bowie Kuhn blocked Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley from selling or trading off the stars on his three-time World Series-winning team in the mid-1970s.

But if you use those powers too liberally, and too often, you run the risk of overusing them, and perhaps looking as if you are heavy-handed in your discipline and inconsistent in your judgments. And that perception, once it's ingrained, can be conduct that's not in the best interests of the game, or the commissioner.

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