In the point after of this week’s SI, I wrote a little something about Bud Selig … and how people cannot help but underestimate him. This has to do with Bud’s almost mythical ability to look baffled. Who can forget the Bud after the All-Star Game tie? Who can forget his rambling press conference when he held up the rule book after the rain-delayed World Series game? Who can forget … well, he’s just Bud. One day, he will come out and say that maybe Abner Doubleday did invent baseball and he will come out another day and say that he had never even heard of steroids until two weeks ago and so on.
But Bud Selig has utterly transformed baseball. I’m not saying he’s always transformed it for the better. That’s a discussion for another time. But at the end of the day, baseball has been transformed — expansion, wildcards, interleague play, increased revenue sharing, drug testing, relative labor peace, new stadiums, All-Star games that determine homefield advantage, the World Baseball Classic, on and on. Maybe baseball stumbled into some of these things. Maybe it was pulled kicking and screaming. But this stuff happened. And Bud, unquestionably, was a force behind this stuff happening. He works the back rooms. He coaxes and ponders and considers. And sometimes he boldly acts. When he rushed in and took the Dodgers away from Frank McCourt, he was not really doing anything out of character. Bud Selig might be the most influential baseball commissioner ever.
But he does not SEEM that way, does he? He just does not present that sort of image. You know that story about the difference between a schlemiel and schlimazel — the schlemiel is the guy who spill the soup, and the schlimazel is the guy who gets the soup spilled on him. Bud Selig seems like, well, both.
I bring this up now for an entirely different reason: Roger Goodell is clearly no schlemiel or schlimazel. Roger Goodell looks, as the cliche goes, right out of central casting. He’s a powerful looking guy, fills out a suit, gives every impression of being in charge at every moment of every day. If you were in a group stuck on an elevator with Roger Goodell, there is no question he would be in charge even if you had CEOs of companies and three-star generals. There are just people who exude authority, people who will walk down the street and people will just know that they are CEO of something or other. Goodell has that aura.
But, while watching this NFL labor mess, something has occurred to me, something that cuts completely against looks and aura and everything else. It has occurred to me that Roger Goodell might about 20,000 leagues over his head. It has occurred to me that while Bud Selig is destined to be underestimated because of the way he carries himself, that Roger Goodell is destined to be overestimated for exactly the same reason.
Here’s my thinking: The owners, under Goodell’s leadership, decided to go for broke as they try to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. They did this at a time when the NFL is, by far, the most successful sports league in America, perhaps the world. They did this at a time when the league is a $9 billion entity, when television networks are sending flowers and chocolate, and when reports are coming out constantly about the horrible damage football does to its players. Goodell, in representing the owners, had the gall to cry poor, to demand a billion more right off the top for their billionaire owners, to say that the game could not possibly continue like this, to take money away from players who seem to be dying young and suffering terribly in later years, to actually demand expanding the season.
At this point, the feeling had to be that Goodell knew what he was doing. The NFL is on some kind of crazy winning streak when it comes to building the game — pro football just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Heck, the NFL DRAFT is now one of the biggest sporting events on the calendar. And that’s just a bunch of people in a room writing names on index cards. The league seems invulnerable to harm, and destined only to get richer and more popular and more powerful. On top of that, Goodell just embodies confidence and certainty. If the league officials figured this was the time to take a bunch of money away from the players, hey, who could argue with their record.
Still, there were signs early on that things were not going as planned. In sports’ work stoppages, at least in my view, the majority of Americans automatically tend to side with the owners … or anyway they tend to side AGAINST the players. I think the reasons for this are involved and complicated and worthy of a 10,000-word post of its own. But generally people seem to get angrier at the players they know than the silhouettes of the owners they don’t.
But not in this case. Oh, sure, there were plenty who blamed the players, almost out of habit. More than usual, though, seemed to realize that the players were not really asking for anything. It was the owners shrieking that the system was irreparably broken, that they needed more money, that they needed to add games, that they were in big trouble. And when the players asked them open the books and actually PROVE they were in any sort of trouble at all, well, suddenly crickets chirped.
So I think many people blamed the owners for this whole fight. I know I did. I think the NFL owners already have by far the best deal in sports and are driven by pure greed to get more. Roger Goodell’s attempts to change this perception seemed to me pretty pathetic and unconvincing. He kept trying to call the attempt to add two games to the regular season a mere “reconfiguring” of the schedule (and he kept saying the fans wanted it though every poll suggested that fans overwhelmingly did not). He kept talking in vague generalities about the financial doom that the league would face if they did not rework the CBA … and nobody really believed him. He sent what seemed to me an ill-conceived letter to the players association. He sent what seemed to me a ridiculous letter to the fans. And, as expected, he presided over a lockout of the players.
Right now, that lockout looks to be the most self-destructive move a league has made in a long, long time. The lockout was enjoined by a judge on Monday, meaning it’s now over. The league is appealing Judge Nelson’s ruling, but from what I can tell the league’s appeal seems on shaky ground, and as our own Michael McCann says the league now has a whole lot to worry about. The players, assuming the ruling is not overturned, now have serious negotiating power. The owners, assuming the ruling is not overturned, now have a serious problem convincing anyone that they aren’t already overflowing in money. This thing has a chance to become a major embarrassment for the NFL owners … and perhaps more than just an embarrassment. It could be a financial catastrophe.
And based on Goodell’s letter to the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. it looks like the impressive NFL commissioner is completely out of ideas. I wrote on Twitter that the only thing missing from this ludicrous letter was exclamation points. You could tell right away that this letter was untrustworthy when in the second sentence he wrote “For six weeks, there has been a work stoppage,” as if that was caused by some sort of natural disaster and was not a result of the owners locking out the players. He then talks about how great the NFL system has been for everyone without even taking one sentence to mention the inconvenient fact that it was the owners, not the players, who wanted to blow up the old system in a bald money grab. He then offers an utterly unrealistic and devious doomsday scenario “if the players win,” which he knows will never happen and is only in play now because of the owners greedy lockout that was slammed down by the courts.
It all screamed of desperation and, frankly, it felt a bit incompetent too. If Bud Selig ever wrote a stroy like that, people would be pulling out their torches and pitchforks. Roger Goodell is undoubtedly a brilliant guy, and he has a strong history with the league, and he is trying to represent a a group of very different owners who probably resent they have to give ANY of their money for the players. But that’s the job of commissioner, and right now it looks like Goodell is flailing.
Of course, maybe he isn’t. Maybe he has expected everything that has happened and has contingency plans that are not easily seen now. Maybe everything is going exactly according to plan. I have mentioned that I am reading Robert Caro’s “Master of the Senate” about Lyndon Johnson, and the amazing thing about LBJ as Senator was how he manipulated people without them knowing it, how sometimes he wanted bills he supported to fail, and how sometimes he wanted people he differed with on his side, and how he had a clear plan that he did not want anyone to see until it was too late.
Maybe Goodell is like that too. That is is certainly the reputation he has built in many quarters. I am beginning to think, though, that reputation is way, way off. Bud Selig is clearly much more effective and authoritative than he lets on. I can’t help but wonder if Roger Goodell is exactly the opposite.