The Roger Goodell Era Will End Badly For Everyone

An independent arbitrator upheld the salary cap penalties Roger Goodell handed down to the Cowboys and Redskins earlier this year, underscoring his limitless power in the NFL. There's only one way this can end.

Back in March, a report from Jason King at Yahoo! Sports began like this:

It’s hard to know which is more galling:

The fact that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is openly promoting the idea of collusion in keeping down player salaries or the fact that NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith was forced to accept it, according to sources.

More galling: The fact that it was all cosigned by an independent arbitrator on Tuesday. Then again, we're talking about Roger Goodell here. None of this should be surprising.

Some context: You probably remember the Cowboys and Redskins being docked a combined $46 million in salary cap space after they spent freely during the uncapped NFL year in 2010, the final season of the league's old CBA. Those penalties came down in March.

Since then, thanks to Yahoo! Sports, we found out that at the 11th hour of negotiations, Roger Goodell and the NFL owners secretly added a provision to the league's new CBA, which forced the NFLPA to agree to cap penalties for the Cowboys and Redskins. If the NFLPA didn't agree, the owners would lower the cap league-wide. In other words, the NFLPA was forced to accept 30 teams' effort to punish the Cowboys and Redskins, or all 30 teams would punish the players.

The Cowboys and Redskins filed an appeal of the penalties this spring with the dispute going to an independent arbitrator. But again, they were appealing a ruling that the NFL and NFLPA had both agreed upon, so chances of success were slim from the outset.

It's a complicated timeline that looks like this:

  • May 2008 -- Owners agree to opt out of the CBA and play 2010 without a Salary Cap
  • 2010 -- The Redskins lead the NFL with $178 million in salary. The Cowboys check in at number two with $168 million. Neither team made the playoffs.
  • 2011 -- The NFL brokers a new CBA, including provisions where the NFLPA agrees to punishments for the Cowboys and Redskins, avoiding a league-wide reduction of the salary cap number.
  • 2012 -- The NFL docks the Redskins $36 million in salary cap and the Cowboys $10 million, citing competitive balance concerns over the way they conducted business in 2010.

Then on Tuesday the ruling came down in favor of the NFL.

Star-divide

The penalties are completely ridiculous, but you knew that. As I said in March, "If an uncapped year was written into the old CBA -- and it totally, completely was -- a league shouldn't be able to retroactively enact some unwritten rules to keep things under control. In this scenario, Roger Goodell is like the off-duty lifeguard telling teams not to swim in the ocean."

One owner defended the penalties like this: "What they did was in violation of the spirit of the salary cap. They attempted to take advantage of a one-year loophole..." Oh, you mean the loophole the NFL created and all the owners voted on in May of 2008?

Make no mistake about what happened here: The NFL owners agreed to an uncapped year in 2010 so they could opt out of the CBA and renegotiate a more favorable revenue split with their next deal (which they did). But they didn't want the year to actually be uncapped, lest teams be peer pressured into spending too much money and setting market prices too high. So with the help of Roger Goodell, the teams all agreed to abide by the "spirit" of the (completely imaginary) salary cap. It was blatant collusion to keep players from taking advantage of the uncapped year.

When the Cowboys and Redskins didn't play by the NFL's unwritten rules, Roger Goodell and the owners went back and agreed that something needed to be done to punish them. That's when everyone got together and threatened the NFLPA with a cap reduction, forcing them to accept the Redskins and Cowboys punishment. (This was about the time that NFL owners were playing PR Games, pressuring players into taking a version of the deal they hadn't seen.)

Then Tuesday, an independent arbitrator ruled that the penalties were valid amendments to the new CBA. How the amendments were negotiated doesn't matter, then.

It's collusion on top of collusion, disguised as "competitive balance." It's socialism disguised as capitalism. It's Roger Goodell playing God with a league full of owners who've sold their soul in exchange for revenue sharing and guaranteed profits every single year. And it's working.

All this can get a little frustrating. Because football sells itself as America's sport and the people running the NFL--making up the rules as they go, exploiting their leverage over everyone and everything--embody exactly the sort of greed and arrogance that's slowly chipping away at America, in general. And just like in broader America, the NFL's pretty much getting away with it because we're all too busy or confused to do something about it. Instead, this cloud of confusion and cynicism follows pretty much every controversy involving Roger Goodell these days.

But have faith. In his ruling Tuesday, Burbank noted, “this is arbitration, not litigation" and the teams' appeal "assumes power in the System Arbitrator that does not exist." As he added at the end, "if the Clubs ‘are dissatisfied with the representation of [their] multi-employer association,’ they retain whatever ‘remedies [they may have] against the association under contract and agency law.’"

In other words, the Cowboys and Redskins could sue the NFL, and the added scrutiny that'd come with a federal lawsuit brought by two of the league's highest profile franchises could change the league's power structure forever. They probably won't do it. But somebody will.

Between hammering Jonathan Vilma without a shred of evidence, downplaying player safety issues, all the questionable suspensions and fines dictated by the whims of the league office and the NFL's "best interests", and then this Skins/Cowboys case ... Almost every decision Roger Goodell makes sort of demands a challenge in independent court. As the years pass, the problems only multiply. So think of this in a broader context.

Profits have kept rising with Goodell in power, and the longer he succeeds as NFL dictator, the more arrogant this whole regime will become. So it's not hard to see how this ends. It'll be ugly for everyone -- eventually, the league will have to actually go to court for something like this, a judge will read the evidence as easily as we do, and there will be enormous settlements. Those settlements will only beget more investigations, with more tentacles of the NFL offices implicated. That's right about when a league full of publicly-funded, hundred million dollar stadiums will probably invite a congressional investigation. Everyone associated with the game will suffer, and it will all make sense. Because regardless of how stupidly profitable this sport is for everyone, Roger Goodell's NFL can only insult our intelligence for so long. After all, this is America.


UPDATE: Annnnd... Yep, the NFLPA is taking the NFL to court


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