Bernstein: Roger Goodell Can’t Lose

By Dan Bernstein

I used to think that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell stood behind the shield that is the league’s logo. But we now know that he is the shield itself. Goodell doesn’t brandish it so much as he’s become it, the two fused together into a protective force both symbolic and real.

Nothing matters to him, except increasing franchise value and cash flow for the owners who employ him. All else is just noise that gets swallowed up until the games are back on television.

Federal courts have affirmed the validity of his unchecked power in the latest case involving his role as the capricious disciplinarian for a private, collectively bargained business. Amazing as it is, his very overreach with arbitrarily imposed suspensions in multiple cases is now just more fodder for negotiation, an easy give-back to players in exchange for more regular-season games, expanded playoffs, less money or anything owners want. He doesn’t need to care about being the league’s appellate judge, especially if he can horse-trade it for dollars.

Any issue that seemed to threaten him has eventually been either deflected, diminished or consumed and absorbed, incorporated into a sports/gambling/media/marketing complex that has proven too big to fail.

A check was cut to palliate those complaining that football destroyed their brains. Goodell waits out others who will eventually die or exhaust their resources and energy to fight. He takes his time to gauge public reaction to whatever the latest player misdeed — toddler abuse, spouse-beating, drugs, assault — to mete out punishments that seem focus-grouped. Even embarrassing officiating controversies become attention-grabbing lightning rods, driving discussion between games and ultimately blending into each other, forgettably.

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He needn’t fear an emboldened players’ union, either, not since its leadership vacuum has left it disorganized and disconnected, beset by an inability to sell long-range goals to short-term rank-and-file workers. Goodell and the owners know that players with careers averaging just four years and often living beyond their means are unlikely to sacrifice for the greater good of those who may come after them. The destructive nature of the game, in this ironic way, tilts the table toward management, with players as human grist for the entertainment mill working on largely un-guaranteed contracts in exchange for shortened lives.

Debate Goodell’s individual reputation all you want, but that misses the point of his tenure. He’s not any kind of visionary or personality, or even really a person. He is a single proxy for 32 owners, with their own mutually destructive conflicts and squabbles. As long as they agree on him as their bulwark against both public acrimony and the NFLPA, he’ll continue making them wealthier through negotiation and expansion.

He’s got the product. He has the games and the meta-games upon which they are predicated, all the pretend rosters and the video simulations to which so many of us remain addicted.

He and his bosses also know our collective attention span has withered to that of some twitchy insect, incapable of concentrating on scandal long enough to care, and endlessly searching for new and shiny things on which to focus. The NFL counts on our ceaseless thirst for distraction, both to weather negative news cycles and to feed our desire to consume.

Roger Goodell is doing the job we prove that we want him to do: he keeps the football coming.

Dan Bernstein is senior columnist on CBS Chicago and co-host of “Boers & Bernstein” on Chicago’s 670 The Score.

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