There was a time not too long ago when the most dynamic person in the NFL was a player, whether it was the electric Michael Vick, Dante Hall, Devin Hester, Tom Brady or, going completely old school, Deion Sanders.
But what passes for excitement in the NFL today happens on Park Avenue in the commissioner's office. Roger Goodell is the person to watch in the NFL, on every issue, with every team.
During the run-up to the recent NFL draft, the biggest issue among concerned NFL players was how Goodell would deal with the embarrassing, explosive issue of Ben Roethlisberger. Goodell, nicknamed the "Law and Order Commissioner," was being examined forensically, photographed from every angle. Would he punish Roethlisberger even though law enforcement in Georgia had not? How much input did he have along the back channels when it became clear the Steelers would not defend their quarterback? And how would he deal with the sensitive issue of racial fairness in a predominantly black league, in which black players were skeptical Goodell would punish a white superstar the same way he took down Vick?
Goodell, Kenesaw Mountain Landis-style, has become the most visible, most publicly powerful commissioner in any sport in years, David Stern included. Since taking the job in August 2006, he has suspended Vick and Roethlisberger, put the players on the defensive and become the face of the sport.
You would think, by the effect he has on the game, the way his judgments are analyzed and anticipated, that Goodell represents something new and different in the annals of sports executives, but he is far from unique. Each league commissioner, from Stern to Pete Rozelle to even the often-ridiculed but financially successful Bud Selig, has found issues that defined his tenure and maintained and maximized profits for his employers, the owners. For Rozelle, it was creating a sense of unity among owners from disparate markets through television and revenue sharing. Stern grew his sport through a calculated star system that elevated the best players over the team, while Selig embodied the spirit of Rozelle following the 1994 player strike.
For Goodell, his legacy issue is player conduct.
Goodell's strength lies in its simplicity: He recognizes a tilted landscape and uses it to his advantage.
He has what President George W. Bush once referred to as "political capital." The NFL is wildly popular, so popular that its canned, offseason content on many nights outdraws live playoff events in both basketball and hockey. The league's union, the NFL Players Association, is fast approaching a critical moment of truth with a collective bargaining agreement that expires when the coming season ends. DeMaurice Smith, the commissioner's opposite number, is fast approaching becoming a footnote to the onrushing Goodell mandate.
The sport's fan base has bought into the decades-old, pseudo-militaristic culture of discipline, leadership, and rank and file. As that base weathers a disastrous economy by generally refusing to give up its favorite vices, it has grown disillusioned with the wealth and perceived off-field unaccountability of the very players it cheers on Sundays.
All of which adds up to a position of great leverage for Goodell, who is capitalizing for the good of the league's owners and business partners. He is doing nothing more than acting like a commissioner.
The supposed counter to that authority resides in Washington, D.C., at the offices of the NFLPA. When he first took over for the late Gene Upshaw in March 2009, Smith hinted that his players needed to begin to erode the lordly powers of the commissioner the same way Marvin Miller and later Donald Fehr did in baseball. Smith appeared to understand, as an outsider, that the often-repeated Upshaw refrain of "partnership" between management and the union was generally fiction until the union had more say in terms of self-determination.
But so far, while Goodell is consolidating his power base around personal conduct, an issue that resonates with the fans, Smith has yet to score a major victory. Roethlisberger did not have the public on his side any more than Vick, and thus neither appealed his suspension. In fact, Goodell has yet to be challenged in a real way regarding the personal conduct policy, which in current application is nothing more than muscle to squeeze the union during negotiating time (which happens to be now).
The NFL players are such supplicants to the league that veteran players are prepared to take money out of their brethren's pockets by demanding a rookie salary cap instead of demanding more equitable rules from management in the next CBA.
Goodell's personal conduct mandate clearly applies only to the players. He has, to date, done nothing to discipline the Miami Dolphins executive who asked wide receiver Dez Bryant whether his mother was a prostitute during a pre-draft interview.
One of his coaches, Raiders head man Tom Cable, allegedly broke the jaw of an assistant and faced no discipline from the league even though it demands players understand it is a privilege to play in the NFL. It also should be a privilege, then, to coach in the league.
Maybe Goodell's consolidation of power was inevitable because football players, when it comes to labor issues, are weak. The average player's career is so short that he cannot jeopardize his small window by impersonating Norma Rae. Therefore, football players have never exhibited the kind of solidarity that will produce change. They break the fastest of any athletes represented by a union and receive the least.
While they are often considered identical, there is a difference between money and power. Upshaw knew this all too well. The NFLPA has not yet been able to obtain such basic rights as an appeal process from the commissioner, so it settles for a larger percentage of the revenue pie.
Upshaw accepted the jibes that he was a lapdog for the owners while trying to extract money instead of power from them. Upshaw knew it because he lived it when the superstars of the game -- Joe Montana, for one -- crossed the picket line during the 1987 strike.
Upshaw recognized that money was the only attainable target he could hit for players who did not have the stamina to fight for their rights. He was not going to gain equality with arbitration or an appeals system that would curb the power of the commissioner.
The fear for the union -- that one day the league would have a commissioner unafraid to tread on the players -- was realized with Goodell's hire. Now it is Smith's turn to negotiate, but instead of sound and fury from players who take the most punishment in sports and, statistically speaking, die the earliest, the only sound coming from the union is one of crickets.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," to be published in May. He can be followed on Twitter at hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.