The harsh words from Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison regarding NFL commissioner Roger Goodell qualify as more than simply another hard hit from one of the league's most physical defenders.
HarrisonBy calling Goodell a "crook" and a "devil" in comments to Men's Journal, Harrison was also highlighting the work that awaits Goodell once a new labor agreement is in place.
"If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn't do it," Harrison told the magazine. "I hate him and will never respect him."
"No disrespect to the commissioner because I have nothing personal against him," Williams said at the time, "but how everything has been handled and how the players feel about him and how things have been said, who is to say there is not going to be problems with that?"
Harrison is a special case. The league has fined him over violent hits against opponents it considered defenseless. Harrison has felt targeted. Unlike Williams, Harrison does have a negative personal history with the commissioner. Most players have less reason to feel as strongly as Harrison in their anti-Goodell sentiment.
But the anti-Goodell sentiment is strong. Players have taken personally his actions on behalf of owners during the lockout. Williams thought players would have a hard time treating Goodell credibly as judge and jury in the league's disciplinary matters regarding players. Harrison, though critical of the commissioner previously, never would have gotten so personal outside the current labor climate, in my view.
"I have been around long enough to see more than one NFL commissioner, and when I first got drafted and was following football, it seemed like the players love the shield," Williams said in June. "They embraced the relationship with the commissioner. I never heard a bad thing about him. When he did fine or suspend a guy, it was not a big deal."
Goodell made player discipline a higher-profile issue. Some players grumbled, but the lockout has taken their displeasure to another level. What Goodell says and how he recasts himself following the labor impasse will be critical to repairing the relationship.