Roger Goodell has a decision to make this week. Does he want to be a $10 million mouthpiece for NFL owners, or a difference-maker who rescues his employers from themselves?
It's one or the other. Because when it comes down to it, Goodell has a single job as commissioner of the world's most profitable sports league: Make the NFL trains run on time. If he can't do that, then it's time to find another conductor.
That's right, Goodell should resign immediately if this owners-created labor dispute becomes a living, breathing lockout by the end of Friday's federally mediated negotiating deadline. Once the owners press the nuclear lockout button, then Goodell must go.
Roger and out.
The NFL isn't broken. Or broke. It is a $9 billion industry that continues to grow as if it has an overactive pituitary gland. Other leagues put their heads on their pillows each night and dream of becoming the NFL.
Of course, Goodell and the owners want you to believe that the league's future is dangerously fragile, that a reconfigured collective bargaining agreement (conveniently reconfigured to the owners' specifications) is preventative medicine -- necessary and good for the health of the league. They can live with a lockout strategy because they're convinced it would be for the greater good of the league and its fans.
But what if they're wrong?
Goodell has been a master of repeating the company line even though the company line has more holes in it than a mesh game jersey. He and the owners have been banging that financial drum slowly and loudly since Goodell was elected commissioner on the fifth ballot in August 2006.
But forget about the company line for a moment. Here's the bottom line: The NFL generates more annual revenue than the NBA and NHL combined (with about $2 billion to spare). The NFL, which owns almost every meaningful record for most-watched television programming, can fall out of bed and get a 33 share. And according to Forbes magazine, each of the NFL's 32 franchises is listed among the world's 50 most valuable sports teams. Six of those franchises (the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, New England Patriots, New York Giants, New York Jets and Houston Texans) are ranked in the top 10.
Duh -- winning.
This is no mom-and-pop business, unless Pop is Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the business is worth $1.65 billion. And, as The Wall Street Journal noted several months ago, the least valuable NFL franchise (the Oakland Raiders) is worth more than the Chicago Cubs or the Los Angeles Lakers.
So you can see why the players' union is reluctant to take a salary haircut. And if you can't see why it's reluctant, then you've been listening to Goodell for too long.
The players didn't create this crisis; the owners did. They're the ones who signed off on the last CBA in 2006. (Goodell, by the way, played a role in those negotiations.) At the time, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney gushed to The Associated Press, "We've got the best labor deal in sports."
But now they want a mulligan?
Anyway, whose fault is it if a franchise drafts poorly, plans poorly and spends poorly? And since when is it the players' responsibility to help bail out the lower-revenue franchises by taking less of their previously negotiated slice of the pie?
The owners want to make more money. Can't blame them for that. But until the owners can actually prove there's an electrical fire in the league's revenue wiring, then you can't blame the players for squeezing their wallets shut.
Goodell says no new stadiums have been built since 2006 -- the message being that owners can't afford the cost of new construction. But 21 new stadium projects were initiated and/or completed during the 17-year reign of Goodell's predecessor, Paul Tagliabue. And, in the past two seasons, new stadiums worth nearly $3 billion combined -- Cowboys Stadium and New Meadowlands Stadium -- have become operational on Goodell's watch. So it's not as if the bulk of the league's teams are playing in football Fenways.
Something has to give, preferably the stubbornness of the owners. That's where Goodell comes in -- or should.
Goodell is the son of a politician, so he was raised on the importance of compromise and consensus building. One way or the other, he has to herd 32 very rich and very entrenched cats through these negotiations. He has to convince them (and perhaps himself) that a lockout would be the dumbest idea since showing up for a Wonderlic test without a No. 2 pencil.
This is when we learn whether Goodell is worth his nearly $10 million in annual salary. The last thing these negotiations need is an owners' lap dog who yaps at all the wrong times and for all the wrong reasons. We know Goodell can hand down discipline and fines, but can he lead? Can he solve? Can he make the NFL's 2011 regular season run on time?
Years from now, nobody will particularly care how Goodell dealt with Spygate, Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger, helmet-to-helmet contact, Ines Sainz, Philadelphia snowstorms or Brett Favre. But everybody will remember whether he contributed to a lockout or prevented one.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.