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Goodell needs to start thinking about his legacy

2011 NFL Draft

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks at the podium during the 2011 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 28, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

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I’ve mentioned during PFT Live on a few occasions in the past week the possibility that Commissioner Roger Goodell’s legacy will be impacted in a negative way by the confusing events of an unpredictable 2011 offseason. The league and the owners entered into the lockout under the apparent assumption that no damage will be done to “the Shield” as long as regular-season games aren’t missed. The events of the past seven-plus weeks confirm that they badly miscalculated the impact of an offseason lockout.

As Rosenthal pointed out in the days after the doors slammed shut for the first time on March 12, the NFL has become a victim of its own success. Millions of fans follow the sport not just from August to February but from March to July, with the numbers going higher and higher each and every year.

But not this year. Even though every game on the schedule may still be played, many fans have become emotionally detached. Those who have yet to choose numbness have opted for anger, as demonstrated by the cascade of loud boos that poured out of the balconies at Radio City Music Hall onto Goodell at the outset of the draft.

Privately, the league has shrugged at the reaction, pointing out that the same fans who will collectively jeer Goodell individually will still cheer him when given the chance to pose for a photo or ask for an autograph. That’s a dangerous attitude for the NFL to adopt; even the most unpopular president will still be met with wide eyes and warm hearts because of the office he holds. Thus, the fact that Goodell enjoys a much more favorable reception in small groups in no way undercuts the reality that, right now, the mob doesn’t like him.

Goodell has said that he is the Commissioner of every football constituency, but not many fans believe that. Most regard the Commissioner as the representative of the owners. Though he tries to be a guardian of the game, he doesn’t seem to be inclined to guard it from the damage that the owners may be doing to it. And given that his predecessor, who guided the league from labor uncertainty into years of peace and prosperity, will be getting into Canton only as a visitor, Goodell legitimately should be worried about whether the achievement of his lifelong goal of becoming the Commissioner of the NFL will translate into the immortality that comes with having a bust in the Hall of Fame.

To get there, Goodell needs to be the one who fixes the current mess, sooner rather than later. Currently, he’s coming off as a bystander at best, the owners’ hatchet man at worst. Because it’s the owners who hired him and it’s the owners who pay him, it’s not surprising that Goodell has not assumed a more neutral role in trying to bridge the divide between management and labor.

But he can’t be both an employee of the owners and a true steward of the sport. To be the latter, he needs to be willing to put the former at a little risk. Or more than a little risk. At a time when the owners are so unified that they’re listen to no one, Goodell needs to be the voice of reason that gets them to focus not on short-term gains but on the long-term interests of the game.

During yesterday’s PFT Live, Tom Curran of punctuated that point with a compelling example. So we’ll give Curran the last word. (If you’re viewing this via the iPhone, iPad, and/or Android apps, you’ll need to get to a computer and pull up the PFT Live home page to see the video. And, yes, we would have preferred to end this item with something other than a parenthetical that points out our current technical limitations.)