In all the intricate plans the NFL has designed with its players to get the 2011 season back on track, there is a lingering wound that only time will heal: the many bruises NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suffered from the berating directed his way by many players, particularly veterans.
From the sarcastic quips of Seattle offensive lineman Chester Pitts(notes) to the caustic, mean-spirited barrage from Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison(notes) (he apologized this past week for his over-the-top remarks), this was a damaging past five months for Goodell and the commissioner's office.
While some owners believe those remarks were merely a byproduct of the difficult and emotional labor negotiations, there is little question that the league needs to find a way to deal with it or risk seeing the leader of America's biggest sport continue to lose respect. Time alone may not heal these wounds.
That's because Goodell's most vocal critics were veterans. Pitts, Harrison, Derrick Mason(notes) and Raheem Brock(notes) are at least 32 years old. These are veterans who should have been calming the anger of other players, not fueling it.
While many players who were directly involved in the negotiations, such as Jeff Saturday(notes), Domonique Foxworth(notes) and Osi Umenyiora(notes), sent Goodell complimentary messages or spoke highly of him in the aftermath of the CBA, the negativity echoes much stronger.
"I understand where it comes from, but I thought it was disgraceful," said one owner, who declined to be identified. "I get that the players were upset with the negotiation, but this is not how you act as professionals. We're talking about guys who have played a long time in the league, who should get it. They should understand business.
"If it was some rookie or other young guy, OK, I could see that. But you look at [former Baltimore wide receiver] Derrick Mason, he's . He's played what, 15 years? This is not how adult, mature people talk to each other."
"He's not a guy who gets acclimated with the players and things like that, which is what you need to do as a commissioner," White said on ESPN's "Mike and Mike Show."
"Just talk to the players a little bit more, and I think people [will be able to] see eye-to-eye with him. He doesn't interact with us, so we try and stay as far away from him as possible. Some guys just don't agree with the book."
White went on to say that Goodell lacked consistency in how he punished players for things such as the personal conduct policy and illegal hits. White is hardly alone in that belief.
What's the solution? That's an important question as Goodell prepares to walk a fine line between disciplining players (Kenny Britt(notes), Adam "Pacman" Jones and Aqib Talib(notes) are among a list of players who face punishment for offseason transgressions) and not being seen as vindictive. He must re-establish a fractured relationship.
At the moment, that plan appears to be to let time heal the situation.
"He doesn't have a plan for this, and no plan to contact those players and nothing to say about their comments," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. "He knows criticism comes with the job, that the CBA negotiations were emotional and frustrating, and he doesn't take any of it personally. He stayed focused on the goal of getting an agreement, and now he wants to let the fans focus on football. He soldiers on. He will visit a few camps and do everything he normally does as far as interacting with players, which he enjoys."
It was telling that when asked to respond to the players' vitriolic comments last month at the owners' meeting, every owner immediately grimaced before collecting their thoughts. While they said largely the same thing – that Goodell was a victim of difficult circumstances – there's no question that damage has been done.
"The comments certainly bother you," New York Giants owner John Mara said. "It's unfortunate that things get to that point."
Said Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay: "It goes with the territory of being the commissioner in a labor battle. You're going to have things like that happen."
Perhaps, but Goodell had previously earned high marks from players for his ability to listen, particularly when the league built the personal conduct policy. He went out of his way to bring in players such as T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes) to discuss issues around the league.
However, unlike former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who preferred to let the court process play out before disciplining someone, the perception is that Goodell is too heavy-handed. That has rubbed players the wrong way.
"First of all, when a few of the guys made personal attacks, those comments were unnecessary and inappropriate," said Saints quarterback Drew Brees(notes), who played a significant role in the CBA talks. "The lockout was not an opportunity to do or say whatever you wanted without consequence. I believe some of the frustration stemmed from the one-sided nature of the commissioner being able to fine players arbitrarily for on-the-field hits.
"Even though the commissioner was on the other side of the negotiating table, representing ownership, he deserves our respect."
There also is a strong perception among players that Goodell did not have a strong hand in the labor talks. Rather, owners such as Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones called the shots. The fact that the owners didn't give Goodell full authority to cut a deal until March fed that belief. It was topped by how the talks went during the final weeks.
How does that get fixed? Perhaps the simplest thing for the league to do is recognize that Goodell's offer in March was close to the final numbers that the two sides worked out. The other solution is for Goodell to outline exactly how his job works when he hits the road to meet players. Unlike last year in training camp, when players asked Goodell pointed questions he couldn't answer, Goodell needs to make it clear that there's a boundary. While Goodell is the advocate of the game, he is hired by the owners. Many players don't understand that simple fact.
More than anything, Goodell needs to be judicious. For instance, overreacting to Harrison's remarks likely would be taken the wrong way. To this point, Goodell has taken the high road. In June, Goodell was asked about some of the criticism he had received, such as Mason calling him a "joke" and Pitts calling him a "fraud." Goodell responded: "What criticism? I really haven't been focused on that."
"I suspect that Roger will try to look right past that and say it's in the past," one owner said. "I think Roger is going to try to find a higher ground on that. If you keep trying to punish someone in that situation, it just looks like you have it out for them, that you're as small as they are."
Furthermore, NFL attorney Jeff Pash indicated that Goodell may not be able to do much. Aside from when players or coaches criticize the officiating, the league avoids punishing speech.
"I do not know of any instance where any action has been taken with respect to comments made – save during the season if someone said 'I am going to go bust someone's head in the game' – where we might do something," Pash said. "But comments made in the offseason, we know that the labor negotiations have been stressful. They have been emotional.
"They have prompted people to say things that maybe they would not say if they reflected on it. I do not see any suggestion that there would be action taken on the basis of comments."
Sadly, it's clear that as of now, Goodell's standing with the players has been diminished.