On Wednesday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that was as hypocritical as it was bizarre. I would even call it “career ending” if the sports media wasn’t so terrified of Goodell, or football fans actually read the Opinion page of the Wall Street Journal. In this malformed missive Goodell excoriates Judge Susan Nelson’s injunction against the owners’ lockout of the players. He said that the game America loves is now on a dark path to destruction.
It’s a stunning piece. Goodell begins by writing, “Late Monday afternoon, US District Court Judge Susan Richard Nelson issued a ruling that may significantly alter professional football as we know it. For six weeks, there has been a work stoppage in the National Football League as the league has sought to negotiate a new collective-bargaining agreement with the players.”
This is not a “work stoppage.” Some Frank Luntz protégé might have massaged that phrase for Goodell. Calling it a “work stoppage” makes the situation sound like a weather pattern. “When will the work stoppage blow over?” Own it, sir: It’s a lockout. You and the owners chose to rip up the collective bargaining agreement two years before it was due to expire. You chose to reject the NFLPA’s offer to continue under the existing CBA until a new agreement could be reached. You are the reason there is a lockout and the reason it was overturned.
But Goodell doesn’t own it. Instead he chooses to not even reckon with the judge’s decision, writing, “Nelson ordered the end of the stoppage and recognized the players’ right to dissolve their union.” I want to hear Roger argue why Nelson was wrong. Is she wrong that the lockout is doing “serious harm” to a workforce that on average only has three and a half years to ply their trade? Was she wrong to invoke the number of injuries on the field? We don’t know.
But the true chutzpah is yet to come. Goodell writes, “By blessing this negotiating tactic, the decision may endanger one of the most popular and successful sports leagues in history. What would the NFL look like without a collectively bargained compromise? For many years, the collectively bargained system—which has given the players union enhanced free agency and capped the amount that owners spend on salaries—has worked enormously well for the NFL, for NFL players, and for NFL fans.”
Let’s leave aside that the above comment would be news for fans priced out of seats and the players who end up crippled without medical care. Goodell is arguing that the status quo has been a resounding success. On a financial and ratings level, this is absolutely true. But it also flies in the face of every utterance the man has made over the last year. For months all we’ve heard is that the status quo was “unsustainable.” The league needed more games, an expanded playoff system, more off-field discipline and more money back from the players or the league wouldn’t survive. Now we’re hearing that the status quo was great but then this psycho judge and uppity union could potentially be destroying it. This about-face amounts to the kind of jaw-dropping sophistry that would shame a sophist. With this, Goodell has confirmed his legacy as the Don Draper of commissioners. He looks great in a gray suit, but beyond the terrific hair, he’s empty of substance. He’s the man who isn’t there.
But it gets more bizarre. Goodell then attacks Nelson’s support of union decertification by writing, “Under this vision, players and fans would have none of the protections or benefits that only a union (through a collective-bargaining agreement) can deliver.”
Hey! It’s Norma Rae! Who would have thought that the man who has waged a relentless financial and public relations war against the NFLPA was actually Eugene Debs in a $5,000 suit? When a CEO starts praising unions, one word of advice: set your skepticism on high alert.
The rest of the piece involves Goodell painting a picture of a dystopian, barren future where there is “no draft,” “no limits on free agency” and every effort to “discipline” players or test for steroids is met with a lawsuit. Drew Magary does a brilliant send-up of the coded racism and ham-faced authoritarianism embedded in Goodell’s cry of dispair, so I won’t try.
It is stunning, though, to read Goodell’s apocalyptic vision of an NFL future that looks like outtakes from Road Warrior, and then remember that he and his masters in the owner’s box brought us to this point. Only someone isolated enough to be influenced by the editorial page of the Wall Street Journalwould take any of this prattle seriously. It’s the panicked response of a man who was handed the keys to the greatest luxury boat on earth and made an unprovoked beeline for the nearest iceberg. If Goodell really wants to save his league, he should be respecting the decision of Judge Nelson and opening the gates for the start of training camp. But the owners are filing an appeal. Of course they are. When the entitled and arrogant among us find themselves in a hole with a shovel, all they can do is keep digging.
[Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing [email protected]. Contact him at [email protected].]