PHOENIX – When it comes to being a sheriff – or, at least, playing one on TV – Roger Goodell has few peers in professional sports.
The NFL commissioner was firmly in his element Monday at the NFL annual meeting at the Arizona Biltmore, surrounded by owners who revere him for his authoritative stewardship of their multi-billion dollar operation. He is far less popular among players, many of whom have criticized him for his autocratic leadership style.
There are times, however, when Goodell's 'Get with the program or get run over' sensibilities can be something around which the entire NFL community can rally. And as fate would have it, he was presented Monday with one of those golden opportunities, as if he were a cleanup hitter and Bud Selig's face was tattooed on a hanging curve ball.
Essentially, the Baltimore Orioles and Major League Baseball are standing in the way of the NFL's plans to hold its Thursday night season opener at M&T Bank Stadium, home of the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens.
And with all due (dis)respect to the displaced national pastime, it's time for the Sheriff of Park Avenue to walk all over Selig, his MLB counterpart.
Because the Orioles are scheduled to host the Chicago White Sox in a 7:05 p.m. game at adjacent Camden Yards on Sept. 5, the notion of staging a Ravens home opener that night is considered untenable. With a finite amount of parking spaces and the potential for downtown gridlock, counter-programming apparently isn't a viable option.
Something is going to have to give. And that something – sorry, baseball fans – is not going to be America's most popular spectator sport.
To his credit, Goodell was relatively polite when questioned about the conundrum during a press conference at the Biltmore on Monday afternoon.
"I have talked to Major League Baseball," Goodell told reporters. "I have called Bud Selig twice and spoken to him about that. We are trying to work out an accommodation to allow the Orioles' game to happen earlier in the afternoon and the Ravens to celebrate their Super Bowl championship with their fans at home on Thursday night. We think that is the right thing. We have agreed to move the game a little bit later in the evening to try to accommodate the baseball game.
"We think it will be a great day. As a kid who grew up as an Orioles fan, to have the Orioles game in the afternoon and then go to the Ravens' Super Bowl championship celebration for the Kickoff Game will be a great day. We hope that is the way it will happen."
If Selig won't play ball, here are three words of advice for Goodell: Make it happen.
There should not be a third phone call to Selig. At best, he should get a text message saying, "BTW Ravens are hosting opener at 830 on Sept 5. Your move lol."
Does Selig seriously think he's going to win this battle against the NFL, a league which dwarfs his in popularity and which has conspicuously refrained from flaunting its superiority? Sure, and the Washington Redskins are getting their $36 million in salary-cap space back (something Goodell coldly rejected during Monday's press conference).
For most of the previous two decades, the NFL refrained from counter-programming Sunday night games against the World Series, even when it became obvious that doing so was a courtesy to MLB. If you think I'm exaggerating, consider this: There's an annual NFL game that in recent years has commanded a television audience roughly equal to that of an NLCS or ALCS contest. That game is the spectacle Goodell believes has become so "embarrassing," the commissioner has contemplated killing it.
Yes, I'm talking about the Pro Bowl. Really.
The NFL could easily bully baseball, but for the most part, that doesn't happen. Back in the days of dual-sport stadiums, the NFL routinely moved games to accommodate baseball's postseason. Even last year, when the Oakland A's made a surprising AL West title run, there was a chance the Week 7 Raiders-Jaguars game at the O.co Coliseum would have to be rescheduled. (It didn't happen because the A's lost to the Detroit Tigers in the first round of the playoffs.)
In the case of the Ravens' opener, Selig should take the high road and give Goodell his opener, allowing the NFL to continue its recent tradition of kicking off the season at the defending champion's home stadium. The Orioles' home game is one of 81. The Ravens are celebrating the second Super Bowl championship in franchise history, and it's kind of a big deal. And the NFL's excuse for not playing its game a day earlier (it coincides with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year) is better than those being trotted out by MLB.
"It doesn't just involve the Orioles," Katy Feeney, MLB's senior vice president for club relations and scheduling, told the Baltimore Sun. "There is another team. The Orioles and White Sox have been on the schedule for quite awhile. Both teams are coming off a night game (on the road). It's late in the season. To ask them to play a day game is rough, plus you have to factor in the impact on attendance and broadcast revenue.
"Conceivably both teams could be in playoff contention, so it wouldn't be fair to them to make them play a day game after both teams played a night game and traveled the night before."
Excuse me while I cue the violins – and the laugh track.
Yo, Bud – is it really that hard to overcome these logistical challenges? Pretend that there was a rainout, or (as Orioles fans can surely appreciate) a sudden, inexplicable power outage. Shift some dates around or, even easier, do as Goodell suggests and play the game in the afternoon. The Orioles and White Sox are big boys – they can handle the turnaround. I'm sure plenty of (legal) stimulants, such as Dunkin' Donuts coffee, can be procured to help the cause.
If broadcast revenue is such an issue, take some money from Uncle Roger's slush fund and do what needs to be done. For that matter, Bud, take some seats in an M&T Bank Stadium luxury suite, courtesy of Sugar Daddy Steve Bisciotti. Sept. 5 should be a night of celebration for all of Baltimore. Don't kill the party; join it.
And if you choose to refuse? "Unfortunately," Goodell said, "the only option is to take the Ravens on the road. We think that is wrong for the Ravens' fans. We would not want that to happen. That is why we are trying to reach an accommodation here."
Goodell said that the NFL's schedule makers are "working on parallel tracks," one featuring the Ravens at home on Sept. 5, the other with Baltimore playing on the road.
"Clearly," he added, "we are getting to a point where we have to make that decision."
In other words, it's time for Selig to blink. The Sheriff of Park Avenue is doing his best not to deliver an ultimatum, but don't try him. For there is another option, and Selig surely won't like it.
This is a time when Goodell should flaunt his considerable power without thinking twice. Making accommodations for the NCAA (no Saturday night games until after the college football regular season winds down) is one thing – that's the NFL's free farm system, and thus there are good business reasons for college football to flourish. Appeasing Selig is utterly unnecessary.
If I were Goodell, I'd make another generous offer to compensate Selig, the Orioles and the White Sox for their trouble – and it would be my final offer. If the MLB commissioner didn't accept it, I'd schedule that Sept. 5 home opener for the Ravens and let nature take its course.
Whose fans do you think would be more likely to show up early, snatch up all the parking spaces and stage pregame gatherings with greater enthusiasm?
Which sheriff would almost certainly still be standing, unscathed, after this high-stakes 21st Century duel?
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