Goodell should prepare to hear boos at draft

Editor’s note: The NFL’s request to have a stay of Monday’s ruling to lift the lockout was denied by Judge Susan R. Nelson on Wednesday night.

NEW YORK – These were the days and this was the stage where Roger Goodell always excelled. The perfect attire, the coiffed hair, the commanding presence – yes, draft week was made for this son of a United States Senator, whether he was showing school kids how to throw a spiral in Central Park or booming out picks and slapping backs at Radio City.

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Goodell has always looked the part of the NFL commissioner, and combined with his league’s soaring popularity and the hard line he’s taken on misbehaving players, he’s been mostly a fan favorite.

But Thursday night, when he opens the annual draft coverage, he’ll likely get booed. Heartily. Perhaps all 32 times he attempts to announce a draft pick.

This has been a rough week for the typically smooth commissioner, thanks mostly to the labor strategy of the owners who employ him. As the face of the league, Goodell is paid to get in the line of fire and answer for the NFL’s repeated stumbles.

Thursday will be a high-profile bill coming due.

The owners’ lockout of the players has been deemed illegal in federal court. Their reaction to that verdict has been clumsy and confusing, like they didn’t see it coming even though everyone else did. Their attempt at spin and fear-mongering – mostly through a weak Wall Street Journal guest column penned by Goodell – has been largely dismissed by a public far more aware than the league apparently thought.

How much of the NFL’s labor moves have been driven by Goodell and how much have come from the owners is unknown. What is clear is that thus far, little has worked.

The owners insisted on this lockout. They insisted that they would defy all odds and win in the courts. They insisted the players would roll over and give them a billion dollars back from the original collective bargaining agreement. They insisted that the public would do what it tended to do in sports labor disputes: go against the players.

Mostly the owners insisted that they could get their way because that’s what billionaires are trained to do in America.

Thus far they’ve been wrong on nearly every count; Judge Nelson’s ruling earlier this week in federal court was just the most brutal blow.

It’s not so much that she went against the owners. It’s that she did it with such force, such persuasiveness and with such an eye on the appeals process that the likelihood it gets overturned is, in the eyes of many legal observers, now small.

Meanwhile the players have remained, at least outwardly, together. Last week’s report of a splinter group of “mid-tier” players seeking a place at the negotiating table has fizzled. The momentum of this week’s victories should aid unity. Union head DeMaurice Smith has managed his team well.

Perhaps most telling is that the public hasn’t rallied around the owners. It usually does in sports labor cases because it thinks owners are supposed to be rich while athletes are lucky to be.

The NFL doesn’t have $15 million reserve power forwards, though. It doesn’t have lazy, out-of-shape right fielders batting .189. Football players compete hard. They sacrifice. They risk permanent injuries and long-term brain issues. They can get cut at any time. Of all the pro athletes out there, they earn their money.

The owners have tried to plead their case. Goodell has held town hall meetings with fans, conducted conference calls with season-ticket holders and made a series of media appearances. It doesn’t seem to have helped.

The problem is the message, not the messenger.

Maybe rather than telling Goodell what to say, the owners should start listening to what he has to offer.

There is a school of thought that Goodell is hamstrung by runaway owners. That behind closed doors he’s told them this course of action is risky and potentially doomed. He, more than they, have a feel for the pulse of this conflict. Maybe he’s letting them take their lumps so they’ll learn to trust him.

No one knows for sure.

The arrogance of too many owners has become increasingly clear as this lockout stumbles along. The NFL’s game plan appears to be failing, yet no one is making halftime adjustments.

Goodell fields questions following a pre-draft event in New York City on Wednesday.
(AP Photo)

Goodell’s reaction in the Wall Street Journal to Nelson’s ruling was particularly absurd, perhaps his worst moment in nearly five years on the job. The owners have valid arguments and if they were presented to the public with intellectual honesty, then that’s fine. (For what’s it worth, I don’t care who “wins” in this battle. It has no personal bearing on anything for me.) What Goodell published though was an insult to things like facts and logic. It was the work of an organization that didn’t respect the intelligence of the audience.

He bemoaned a “work stoppage” – even though everyone knows it was the owners who created it by locking the players out. He tried to scare fans about the potential end result of the players’ lawsuit, saying it could result in the elimination of the draft, salary caps and competitive balance. Everyone knows, however, that the players aren’t pursuing those things and were forced to decertify and sue to gain leverage in negotiations.

He portrayed the league as the protector of what has made the sport so great, even though it wasn’t the players who wanted to change how business was conducted.

In short, he started a fight and is now complaining that the other guy is beating his brains in.

By the time chaos fell across the league Tuesday in the wake of Nelson’s judgment – Can you let players in? Can they lift weights? Can we make a trade? – the historically buttoned-up NFL looked disheveled and disoriented.

Now here comes Thursday night, three hours of prime-time NFL draft coverage, in better days one of Roger Goodell’s smarter marketing moves.

Only now the fans will let him have it. Over and over and over, perhaps 32 times in all, the public will vocally choose a side. It promises to be loud and uncomfortable to the normally unflappable face of the establishment.

Here on a bad week for the NFL, the question is whether the owners will bother to listen.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Apr 27, 2011