Roger Goodell needs to listen to players

Once NFL owners and players finally sign the new collective bargaining agreement that will carry them through the next 10 years, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's next move is such a no-brainer he should already be working on his itinerary.

He should go on a listening tour of NFL training camps. Tell the players -- even the ones calling him a fraud, a joke, a devil and a crook -- they can put away their checkbooks and he'll put away the fines he's been handing out since he instituted the NFL's personal conduct policy -- the single most despised invention of his tenure. Then get in a room, shut the door and air everything out. Man to man, face to face.

The reason Goodell should do it now is not because he should worry about being universally liked. No commissioner should give a rip about that. This isn't about ginning up approval like he's running for Prom King. It's about the more practical matter of having a decent enough relationship with the players to be able to conduct business in such a way that his tenure as commissioner, specifically, or the league, in general, isn't dragged down by a constantly recurring series of racial or class warfare faceoffs. Because even before the lockout, it sometimes seemed that way.

Does commissioner-player conflict matter, even if it's perception and not reality? You bet.

If the griping about Goodell was only coming from what passes for the lunatic fringe among NFL players nowadays -- those self-described "mean S.O.B.s" who strike knucklehead poses for magazine photo shoots with matching pistols, the proud old-schoolers who grumble the game's pro-safety wing is turning the NFL into flag football -- it'd be easy to dismiss the gripes as just rockhead thinking.

But when even more moderate players like Roddy White or Robert Mathis or Scott Fujita talk about how Goodell has "lost" the players, it's clear the anger toward the commissioner isn't residual lockout-related dislike. It's personal.

"It's like a dictatorship," Falcons receiver White said on ESPN's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" radio show. "[Goodell] just comes off as a different kind of guy … Just talk to the players a little bit more, and I think people can see eye to eye with him. But he doesn't do that. He doesn't interact with us, so we kinda stay as far away from him as possible."

"Does he have a problem with getting the players' respect? Absolutely," Fujita, a member of the NFLPA's executive committee, told Yahoo! Sports in May. "No matter what happens, it might be tough for him to ever get that back. However this is resolved, I can't say every player, but the overwhelming majority will continue to have a problem with him. And that's too bad."

Should the NFL players just shut up, grow up and realize, as the Colts' Mathis has said, "I know you shouldn't take business personal." Or do relationships matter?

Again and again, people who've been handcuffed to each other in these kind of situations before say "you're damn right relationships matter."

The emerging storyline of how the NFL and the Players Association started to finally move toward this settlement (more on that in a minute) is the latest example. But it's not the only one.

The year that the NHL canceled its season, commissioner Gary Bettman and then-players' association president Bob Goodenow had such a bad relationship, they were actually asked to stay out of the room when both sides met for their one last-ditch effort to work things out because tensions were so raw they inhibited discussion among everyone else. Back when baseball was going through its constant labor problems, Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos attracted attention almost on par with Steelers linebacker James Harrison's recent remarks that Goodell is a devil and a crook with some extraordinary out-of-school talk about the path Bud Selig was then leading baseball down.

Angelos said Selig's attempts to address baseball's labor problems were "amateurish, ineffective and doomed to failure. Watching him is like watching a person stick his hand in a buzz saw. You want to shout, 'Hey! You're getting blood all over the rest of us!' "

Selig's plan to give the public replacement players instead of major leaguers if a strike happened? "Selig's delusion," Angelos scoffed, arguing you can't "replace" big leaguers because, "They are the best of the best … If there were indeed so many 'replacements,' it would seem to me there wouldn't be this much argument over salary level."

After Angelos aired his gripes, Selig did an interesting thing: Angelos wasn't forever kicked out of the negotiations or off committees. He stayed in. Months later, Angelos had seen a different light about the complexities or underappreciated challenges of being a commissioner. When his explosive remarks were later read back to him, he said, "heh, heh, well. … That's probably the terminology of a combative trial attorney. I didn't say it for effect. I believed it. On reflection, maybe I could've toned it down a bit.

"Old wounds and attitudes were still festering on both sides. But I didn't accept that."

That seems to describe where Goodell and NFL players are now.

Players have been griping about the personal conduct policy Goodell created since at least 2008. That's old news. But that doesn't mean change in that dynamic isn't possible.

The tick-tock recounting of what actually started the league and the NFLPA moving toward a settlement in recent weeks was new: it was a thaw in the relationships that began with Goodell and NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith finally getting the hawks on their respective sides out of the room (in Goodell's case, that started with Carolina owner Jerry Richardson, who insulted some players in sessions and had urged his fellow owners to "Take back our league!"). Then, according to numerous accounts, Goodell called Smith and suggested that they get all the lawyers out of the room so just he and Smith and a handful of their staffers could meet. And that's when the wheels began to creak and move. A deadline was bearing down. Real money was about to be lost. Forget personal agendas and get on with things.

So where does Goodell go from here?

The simple answer is he and the players are stuck with each other. Now that everyone can come out of their lockout bunkers, now that there will be labor peace for 10 more years, they can get on with addressing the details of how they'll work together. When you get past all the names some players have hurled at Goodell, the players' main gripe -- over and over again -- comes down to this: They feel as if their concerns -- especially about his disciplinary process -- are not getting heard. It's not just meatheads crying about being fined for bad hits; as Giants safety Deon Grant, one of the good guys, detailed last season, it's more complicated than that.

And it would be a sign of strength, not weakness, for Goodell to listen to them all. It wouldn't be proof he's getting soft on crime or discipline. It would just be smart business.

Part of being commissioner is protecting the game's best interests. But part of being a great commissioner is toeing that always shifting line between being paid by the owners but recognizing it's the players who still really make the league.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.