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Like him or not, Roger Goodell has absolute power to shape NFL

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Roger Goodell went to Detroit Lions training camp Thursday, and to the relief of everybody, he left his handcuffs and billy club at home.

At Lions camp, everything about the National Goodell League was on display. This is one of the NFL's up-and-coming teams, a safe bet to at least contend for the Super Bowl in the next five years. One of the Lions' most explosive players, Jahvid Best, is out indefinitely because of concussions, even though he hasn't suffered one in almost 10 months. That would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

As Goodell signed autographs, a woman named Ngum Suh introduced herself and greeted him warmly. She is Ndamukong Suh's sister and close adviser. Goodell suspended Suh for two games last year when Suh put his foot through the chest of a Green Bay Packer and it came out on the other side.

And naturally, the assembled media wanted to ask Goodell about the team's recent criminal history. The Lions made headlines with eight arrests in the offseason, though to be fair, Nick Fairley, Aaron Berry and Mikel Leshoure were each arrested twice each, which is really cheating -- the Bengals would have done the proper thing and had eight players get arrested once each. Also, Lions' defensive lineman Corey Williams was actually arrested for driving under the influence in 2011, but the media didn't discover it until this year, so it counts under the team's Assault and Battery Cap for 2012.

Anyway, this will all pass for the Lions as soon as some other team has a few players arrested in an offseason. The Lions are not out of control any more than any other NFL team is out of control; they just had a small percentage of players make a few dumb decisions.

Goodell was asked about the perception that players don't trust him, and lawsuits from former players, and the Lions' rise, and whether he needs to wait out the legal process to suspend somebody. Everybody looks at Goodell and naturally thinks of these issues that come up every day. But the news story from Thursday that is most relevant to Roger Goodell is not any of this. It's that somebody bought the Cleveland Browns for a billion dollars.

*****

Last year, Goodell accomplished something that will not just define his legacy but allow him to create one. He hammered out a labor deal that is favorable to the owners, gives him immense power, and lasts for 10 years -- without canceling a single regular-season game.

David Stern wishes he could have done that last year. Gary Bettman would love to do that right now. Bud Selig surely still wishes he'd been able to pull that off in 1994, even though his commissionership has been a remarkable success since then.

Goodell did it, and the 10-year term is the key. Just as presidents only have a short time to enact their agenda before midterm elections and then presidential campaigns are under way, commissioners have to get their work in before it is time to negotiate the next collective bargaining agreement. A five-year CBA gives a commissioner three years. A 10-year CBA gives Goodell eight years.

And since the deal is good for the owners, they will mostly let Goodell run the league as he sees fit, as long as he is smart, keeps them informed and doesn't make too many huge mistakes.

In the next several years, Goodell has a chance to shape the NFL for a generation. He may even be able to shape the entire sport, on all levels, for a generation.

Most commissioners, like most CEOs, are in the money-making business. So is Goodell, of course, but it should be pretty clear from Goodell's actions that he cares about a lot more than that. He was a high school football star who, because of his intelligence and his connections, probably could have been successful in 50 different fields. He chose a career in football. It was not the obvious path to riches for him at the time.

Goodell has taken a healthy share of criticism for his bulldozer approach. Players complain he is making the game soft. Critics complain he was late to deal with the concussion crisis. These two issues have essentially made EVERY football fan a Goodell critic, since you can either think he is too worried about player safety, or he isn't worried enough.

And people (like me) have complained that Goodell tends to reach a verdict before he hears the evidence, or at least, before he shares the evidence. That is the fundamental problem with the prosecution of the New Orleans Saints. For all I know, Gregg Williams offered $50,000 to the first Saint who pit-roasted Brett Favre's head and served it with a side of coleslaw. But Goodell announced the Saints were guilty without really explaining why.

But 30 years from now, people probably won't remember how Goodell did what he did. They will just look back and say he completely reshaped his league.

He is doing that already. When Goodell was asked about the Lions' arrest habit, he said: "We are very clear with our players, our coaches, our executives, that that's all a part of being a part of the NFL. And when we say that being a part of the NFL is really a privilege, not a right."

Anybody could say that. But I think Goodell meant it, and I think he firmly believes in his view of what that privilege means, even if others don't. Nobody forced him to suspend so many players for off-field transgressions. He chose to do it.

And when Goodell talked about concussions, he said: "I have twin daughters who play soccer and it's the work that we're doing is having an impact on other sports and making other sports safer and that's what we're trying to do. And it goes beyond sports. We're working with the military very closely to make sure that we can help them with what we've learned. It's the return to the field and return to the battlefield. So we're working very closely with the military because this is new from a medical science standpoint and we're all learning a lot. And we have to make sure that we're leading the way because that's our responsibility as the NFL."

The NFL was way, way late to come around on the concussion issue, no matter what Goodell says about working on this for more than a decade. Still, the opportunity is here now to make an impact, because Goodell's league has the resources and ample reason to lead the way on concussion research.

Goodell was also asked about his critics.

"You gotta do what's right," he said. "You've got 2,000 players and you've got 32 clubs. You're going to make decisions that aren't always going to be popular."

Maybe so. But those 32 owners are quite pleased with their commissioner. And that will allow Roger Goodell to fulfill his vision for our biggest sports league -- whatever he decides that is.

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