As one of the defendants stated succinctly last week during the so-called appeals, "Goodell is judge, jury and executioner." And he is that by virtue of the Collective Bargaining Agreement he signed with NFLPA director DeMaurice Smith last summer. Even while the signatures were still wet, Smith and his band of merry pranksters launched attempts to get back some of what they gave up in the new CBA, most notably the provision that governs Commissioner Authority. That provision, which has now been upheld in at least two grievance hearings, basically gives Goodell the right to be judge, jury and executioner in areas he believes threatens the integrity of the game.
Certainly, a system which offers payments that could lead to injuries of opposing players falls under such authority, and I have no problem with it. However, I still find it troubling that the league's stance against those who question the evidence that supports the penalties is "trust us." The dribs and drabs of statements and pieces of paper that purport to show that certain Saints players, coaches and others contributed to a hangman's pool could be twisted into knots in a traditional legal venue. And that is why the league is holding onto most of its cards right now.
Goodell's worst nightmare has never been the grievance system which falls clearly within the parameters of the CBA, hence his authority. What should keep the Commish awake at night is the possibility that the protests of the accused will be taken to a court outside the friendly confines of 280 Park Avenue. Such a case is looming with Jonathan Vilma's defamation suit against Goodell, which on the face of it doesn't sound threatening. But any case that falls outside the realm of commissioner control can be troubling. It will likely be heard in U.S. District Court in New Orleans, which suggests the likelihood that some of the judges or their staffs are Saints fans, or even season ticket holders. To think that this wizened tribe can suppress its personal feelings when local hero Vilma takes his seat in their court, doubtlessly wearing a ring commemorating an end to the city's long slog through NFL mediocrity, is a stretch.
Often, the merits of a case become less important than the venue in which it is heard. So far, Roger Goodell hasn't shed much sweat when those he has punished walk into his courtroom to protest his decisions. Nor did he likely raise much of a brow Friday when union boss Smith wrote a letter to him stating "the people who presented the information from the NFL's investigation to you egregiously failed you because they did not present a full and complete account of the entirety of the testimony and information they received."
However, when the Vilma case is assigned and possibly joined by other challenges in unfamiliar court rooms, Goodell will then pull the other cards out of his pocket and play his full hand. And not until then will those on the outside be comfortable the league is on firm ground and not merely feeding rumors of conspiracies.
Jim W. Miller is the former Executive VP for the New Orleans Saints. Read his new book, "Where the Water Kept Rising," which is now available in local bookstores and at his website: www.JWMillerSports.com
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