One League. Under Goodell. With Liberty and Justice For All.

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

-Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776

Call it “The Ruling Heard Round the League.”  Last week, an appeals board overturned NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s suspension of four New Orleans Saints players for their alleged role in a team bounty system, citing lack of proof of “intent to harm.”  The four players were immediately reinstated: Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith on the Saints; Scott Fujita, on the Browns; and Anthony Hargrove, a free agent.  Fujita and Hargrove were with the Saints from 2009-2011, the period during which the pay-for-hits system is alleged to have operated.

The ruling does not affect the suspensions of Saints Head Coach Sean Payton (entire 2012 season), Assistant Joe Vitt (six games), Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams (indefinitely), and General Manager Mickey Loomis (eight games).

The reaction by players was immediate and celebratory:

Roger Goodell isn’t likely to see this as a personal victory, but he does still have the right to discipline the players involved, provided he can prove intent.  The panel, however, did inform Goodell that he overstepped his bounds hearing the appeals of the suspended players.  That could be viewed as a defeat on the part of the commissioner, long criticized as running the NFL with an iron fist.

Where does it go from here?

Goodell could and should take this opportunity to examine his role as commissioner, his deteriorating relationship with the players (and now the refs), and try to instill some trust. One way to do that would be to set up a governing body for the league, made up of players, former players, executives, owners, officials, and league representatives.  I don’t know…call me bold here, but something resembling…a democracy?  Lack of trust has tumbled many an authoritarian regime.  And the battles Goodell faces will only get bloodier as that trust erodes.

Roger Goodell has done more for building, branding, and marketing the National Football League than any organization could ask of any executive.  It is not only financially sound, it rivals the most valuable sports leagues in the world, and just seems to grow more popular and more profitable every year.  You won’t hear owners complaining about Roger Goodell.

But that doesn’t undermine the need for unity, inclusion, and trust.  The men who take the field, put their health and their lives and their livelihoods on the line to play the game deserve to have their interests represented as well.  They have to know they have someone in the league who will hear them out, treat them fairly, and ensure them due process.  And not just the NFL Players Association.  In fact, maybe by including players in the process, they can take lawyers out of it.  At least some of it.

The birth of a democracy is a long, laborious, and painful process.  Tears will fall, blood will be shed.  But in the end, if everyone contributes, then everyone has skin in the game, and together, everyone can hold the game to a higher standard.

The ball is in The Commissioner’s court.  And somewhere Jonathan Vilma is ringing a bell.



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