If there's one thing this lockout resolution proved, it's that the only way things work between the players and owners is if the relationship is perceived by both sides as a partnership as opposed to an employer/employee paradigm. Both sides had to come to the table and compromise, and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith's ability to reach out to the owners' side and talk with people like Robert Kraft when things looked to be falling apart was a major catalyst in getting things done. Jeff Saturday's embrace of Kraft at the press conference announcing labor peace was the best possible personification of the idea that the NFL is moving to a structure in which owners and players are partners in one of the country's more ridiculously profitable ventures.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell may be grooving in the glow of a new CBA — after all, this is the deal he was hired half a decade ago to make — but going forward, there's a real perception problem he'll have to deal with. More and more, players are coming out and saying that not only does Goodell not speak for them (fair enough; Goodell's job is to speak for the owners), but he's also developed a deliberately adversarial relationship with them that does nobody any good. In the last few days, and even as everyone knew that the lockout was coming to an end, the bad feelings continued.
"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," Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White said last week. "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. A lot of times, we have to … the [punishments] should be standard. Like, if you get a DUI, it's a two-game suspension. Not, 'Oh, I'm gonna think about it,' and it's a four-game suspension. I think it should be a book of rules that everybody sees, and you get whatever you get — that's whatever the games [lost] are."
White continued to talk about Goodell's supposedly arbitrary discipline structure. "It's always like he wears his feelings on his shoulders. It's how he feels about the situation, and how you're getting penalized for it. That's how a lot of players feel about him. They think it's not fair. And plus, it's like a dictatorship. Whatever he says, that's just the end of it — there's nobody else you can talk to. A lot of players feel that there should be another way. De Smith should have something to say within that penalty. Especially with the fines that James Harrison got — he can appeal them all he wants, but there's nothing anyone else can say, and it is what it is."
For Minnesota Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards, the feelings were more general. "I don't know if it's hate or dislike," Edwards said just hours after the lockout ended. "He came in trying to change the whole game around, trying to leave his mark on the game. I guess that's where a lot of the hatred comes from. We feel sometimes he treats us unfairly due to his rules that he [enforced] upon us.
"I don't like him. He looks at us like — he is the power above us — but he looks like he's never done anything wrong. And that's how we feel about him towards us — like we're just kids or something. We're all grown men and we're looking to better ourselves and the lives of our families and him taking money out of our pocket, we just don't like that."
Tuesday morning on ESPN's "Mike and Mike" show, Pittsburgh Steelers safety and player rep Ryan Clark was very specific regarding his issues with the Commish. "I don't think much of him at all, to be honest. If you look at the things he's done — I mean, he did put his foot down in situations where I think he had to. But sometimes, when you make yourself judge and jury in the appeals process, you're going to take a lot of flak. Especially in his situation, where you come before the season and say, 'This is the scale you're going to have.' And then, all of a sudden, you, without anybody else having an opportunity to weigh in, just totally raise the scales on how people are going to be fined. And you do it at your discretion.
"Also, with the conduct policies, just making decisions on his own — not seeking help from anyone else. You put yourself in a position to be criticized. I think that when you make yourself the face of the league … a lot of situations he hasn't handled well. Also, just talking to teams before the [season], he just didn't represent himself well. He didn't put himself in a position where the players felt like he was for the players, or for what we were trying to do. He's definitely all about the shield, and all about Roger. So I think that in those situations, you're going to draw criticism. I don't have a problem with anything anyone has said about him."
When asked what Goodell could to do change that perception, Clark seemed to believe that it may be too late. "Sometimes, we get too far. Sometimes, when you break things, you can't fix them. And I think he's in a position right now where it's going to be extremely hard for him to change the perception of Roger Goodell. I think he just had to continue to do his job the way he wants to do it. He obviously hasn't cared about what the players thought about him before, anyway. It's never been an objective of his to be our friend, or to be our ally. For Roger, he's just going to keep doing the same job he's been doing. We're not trying to be fans of Roger Goodell, so right now, there's nothing for him to do."
Again, we understand that it's not Goodell's "job" to connect with the players, but it is his job to forward league business as smoothly as possible, and he's had problems with that before. His mid-season change to the on-field fine structure, as Clark mentioned, was typical of his "ready-fire-aim" philosophy, and with a new 10-year labor deal in place, the league and players will have to work together to grow the game as never before. And it's very clear that the players want more transparency and more of a voice in every process that relates to them. Not too much to ask, really.
So many people have gone above and beyond to make this deal happen. Now, with everyone wondering what happens next, it's Roger Goodell's turn to do the same.