Roger Goodell Is A Dictator

The NFL commissioner’s new habit of publicly patting himself on the back for doling out punishment is very worrying.

David Goldman / AP

According to an AP story posted this afternoon:

Commissioner Roger Goodell says he’s confident bounty hunting will no longer be an issue in the NFL because of the severe penalties handed out in the wake of the New Orleans Saints scandal.

Goodell says the actions taken by the league “speak very loudly.”

Via sportsillustrated.cnn.com

At the risk of lapsing into sarcastic-bastard mode, Generalissimo Goodell needs to be taken to task for the supreme degree of smugness he’s been exhibiting recently. Let’s review the NFL’s incredibly fraught offseason so far:

1. One of the league’s most popular teams, the New Orleans Saints, was publicly revealed to have been paying its players to injure opposing teams.

2. One of the league’s most popular and best linebackers of all time, Junior Seau, shot himself in the chest, leading many to wonder whether he was suffering from brain damage.

Despite questions about the appropriate culpability of the guilty parties in that first issue — is this situation really any different from routine play on a football field? — both of these have been huge and thorny issues for the league. Seau’s suicide factors into a massive and contentious debate over whether the sport of football is destroying its practitioner’s brains quietly and with extreme effectiveness.

So how does Goodell judge progress? Based on the severity of the punishments he doles out, that’s how. Rather than wait and see whether the NFL does, in fact, move forward without further bounty problems, or poll players on what they think will be the effect of his punitive actions — which include season-long and multi-game bans for a half-dozen players and coaches — Goodell has decided that, because the dog has been beaten, it will no longer misbehave. And if the dog no longer misbehaves, then no more dogs will get hurt, because of course, they were only getting hurt because they were misbehaving. Both problems solved in one fell swoop.

These are scare tactics. Throughout the bounty debate, the lurid details of bounties and plots have distracted from the fact that there has been little to no discussion of why these players decided to participate in what was obviously an illegal system. For Gregg Williams, the bounty-issuing ringleader, the reasons are obvious: motivate your players. But for these other guys, like Jonathan Vilma, the few-thousand-dollar incentive for, say, breaking the leg of Brett Favre negligible significance. Depending on the severity of the hit, it might not even outweigh the fine he’d incur if the hit happened to be illegal. And if the hit wasn’t illegal? Then what’s the problem anyway?

At the root of the bounty scandal is a much more difficult idea to consider: maybe Jonathan Vilma likes hurting people. Or maybe Jonathan Vilma is an excellent football player because he has no problem hurting people, even if he doesn’t enjoy it. For Goodell to interrogate the reasons behind Vilma’s possible pschopathy would mean questioning what makes him an effective, Super Bowl-winning linebacker, and that could prove risky; what if he ruins the chemistry, that mysterious balance that allows Vilma to use his own body as a weapon in order to make his career. No, it’s far better to just suspend him for a year. That’ll solve it.

Goodell is lashing out and trying to persuade us all that somehow that’ll solve things. But he still isn’t trying to understand what the problem is here. Is the problem that Jonathan Vilma and co. were paid extra money to hurt people? Or was the problem that Jonathan Vilma hurt people? If it’s the former, than all right, maybe Jonathan Vilma and others will from now on continue to hurt people for their base pay and not incentives. (I’m not even passing judgment right now; they’re all willing participants in this game, whether that excuses it or not, and that’s another debate for another day.) If it’s the latter, then Goodell hasn’t solved anything. Because more than likely, when Vilma returns, he’ll want to hurt people even more than he did prior to the ban because, greater than anything else, his suspension shows how effective his behavior actually was. Vilma’s a scary dude on the football field, and everyone knows it, and that’s valuable.

This isn’t the first time Goodell’s leaned on discipline, either: in fact, it’s sort of a calling card for him. In 2007, he suspended Adam “Pacman” Jones for the entire season and wide receiver Chris Jones for eight games. More regularly, he’s been quick to issue fines for hits that he deemed questionable or dangerous, even if they weren’t penalized in the game. He even went so far as to suspend Colts assistant coach (and former Ohio State coach) Jim Tressel based on an unserved NCAA suspension.

By embracing this crooked philosophy of punishment first and foremost, Goodell has established himself firmly in the position of disciplinarian, believing that all it takes is the lash to keep his subjects from acting out. But there’s always something at the root of that behavior. In saying that penalties and penalties alone will solve the problem, Goodell has shown that he doesn’t understand anything about what’s going on.

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