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Goodell’s dissonant priorities exposed as NFL’s two big scandals converge

Deflategate and the NFL’s poor handling of new concussion research efforts were both in the news on Monday, putting Roger Goodell’s unbalanced priorities as commissioner in the spotlight as never before.

As I was starting to write what you’re reading now, my good friend and colleague (and former SI writer) Jim Trotter, now of ESPN, asked a very valid question on Twitter: How should the job performance of a sports commissioner be evaluated?

When it comes to Roger Goodell, the answer is complex. There’s no question that in a decade under Goodell’s stewardship, the NFL has raked in revenue from television, sponsorships and every other direction. The league is far healthier from that standpoint than ever before.

But when it comes what he’s done for the advancement of the game as a thought leader, Goodell’s legacy is far cloudier. He has presided over several disciplinary disasters, from StarCaps to Spygate to Bountygate to the Ray Rice scandal ... and in every case, Goodell and his minions have proven to be either far too passive or far too aggressive. Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue had to come in and clean up the mess Goodell created when he used his wide-ranging powers to punish the Saints for Bountygate without what would seem to meet the legal or rational burden of proof. Conversely, the initial two-game suspension Goodell gave Rice was pilloried for being far too light, especially after video of the domestic violence incident became public, and Goodell was caught looking foolish in explaining his thought process.

Tom Brady facing Deflategate long shot despite en banc appeal petition

Of all the disciplinary issues under Goodell, Deflategate has unquestionably been the most drawn-out and overblown. We’ll spare you the recounting of all the gory details (that’s what SI legal expert Michael McCann is here for) and only point out that Goodell initially suspended Tom Brady for four games on May 11, 2015, and the subsequent appeals process has gone on so long, Goodell is still trying to get that suspension on the books for the 2016 season. It’s the kind of mess that only Goodell, with his stubborn, unthinking stance that he is the voice of the game’s integrity, could create and perpetuate. But here we are.

In the petition, Brady’s legal team stated that Goodell’s suspension ruling violated the rule of law, and claimed that Goodell’s affirmation of his own ruling “cripples the ability of employees to challenge workplace discipline.” The panel could rule in Brady’s favor or ask the NFL for a response, opening the whole thing up again. And if Brady’s side doesn’t hear what it wants, there’s the last-ditch option of taking the case to the Supreme Court.

Yes, the Supreme Court. Deflated footballs in the freaking Supreme Court.

In the end, that’s what Goodell’s insistence on pursuing this case to completion is about: the power to determine and enforce the parameters of the NFL’s workplace discipline, whether that power is given to him in the CBA or not. This is not about deflated footballs—Goodell and his team did not spend millions of dollars on legal fees and “experts” in Ideal Gas Law to make sure they got the Brady punishment right. They have done all of this because Goodell desperately wants to uphold his self-styled reputation as the league’s ultimate authority. It is an alarmingly short-sighted way to go about things, but that has been Goodell’s modus operandi throughout his decade as the sport’s commissioner, and in the end, that will be a large part of his legacy.

“The league has a history of being bullies,” NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith told ESPN Monday. “Today, we’re filing a brief because the commissioner decided to be a bully when it came to the fair hearing of a player. When Roger made the decision that he was going to cloak himself as the arbitrator, he engaged in a hearing based on the scientific findings. When he understood that there were no facts to support Tom Brady’s suspension, he chose to rely on a second ground that wasn’t even talked about during the course of the hearing.”

That second ground was based around Brady’s “general awareness” of the allegedly deflated footballs, the destruction of his cell phone and Goodell’s ridiculous comparison to the NFL’s steroid policy, and it started to look as if Goodell was flailing for any ground he could find to remain the league’s ultimate dispenser of justice. Which is what this debacle is really all about.

Sadly, another large part of Goodell’s legacy is the league’s defiance of the overwhelming evidence regarding the links between head hits in pro football and long-term brain injuries. Goodell did everything he possibly could to deny that link until he was forced by an angry Congress to do something about the ongoing problem during hearings in 2009. Since then, the league has implemented various cosmetic fixes to create a “safer” game and ended its legal battle with thousands of former players in a $765 million settlement in which the NFL does not have to admit to any wrongdoing in the prior years.

Meanwhile, the NFL has done everything possible to skew new research to serve its purposes. Last December, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada of ESPN detailed steps the league had taken to pull over $16 million in funding meant for a study spearheaded by the National Institute of Health because of the participation of Robert Stern, a Boston University professor who has been highly critical of the NFL’s management of head injuries. Stern was tabbed by the NIH to head the seven-year study, which was created with the lofty primary goal of finding a way to diagnose CTE in living people.

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Based on that ESPN report, Democratic members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce started an investigation into the NFL, and the results were troubling, if not entirely shocking. On Monday morning, Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada passed along the details of that report, which revealed that the NFL did actually pull its funding when the NIH refused to remove Stern from the process, but not before pressuring and bargaining with the institute through back channels. It’s clear that the league never meant for its grant to the NIH to be “unrestricted,” as was originally stated. From the start, the NFL was using its own medical personnel to run a game on a government-funded study  group, and seemed to see nothing wrong with that. 

So, back to the original question: What is Roger Goodell’s legacy? Outside of his success in growing the league’s revenue, which one could argue isn’t too tough in a time when pro football has a license to print money, we are left with an NFL in his image that with one hand spends outsized resources on ridiculous disciplinary exercises and with the other downplays the most fundamental quality of life issues the game presents to its players. On days like today, Deflategate feels like a smokescreen for the public to ingest while the league engages in shadier backdoor doings. It’s more likely the two things are not connected at all, and Goodell is simply caught up in his own ridiculous obsessions over the minutiae of power-grabbing while the ground sinks beneath his feet.

One thing is for sure: When Goodell’s tenure is summed up down the road, he will be seen as a leader whose priorities were at times violently out of whack. No day better illustrates that than Monday, when within the span of a few hours we learned that the Deflategate ridiculousness would continue and that the league tried to cook one of the most important head injury studies in history for its own purposes.

That is Roger Goodell’s real legacy. Whether he cares or not, he has nobody but himself to blame for it.