Goodell ruling fails Vick, players

Michael Vick, in his prepared statement about his partial reinstatement Monday by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, landed the right balance of contrition, remorse and, most importantly, deference. Vick said he was grateful for being given the opportunity to resume his football career, thanking Goodell, in particular, for allowing him to play the game he loves.

"I would like to express my sincere gratitude and appreciation to commissioner Goodell for allowing me to be readmitted to the National Football League," Vick said through agent Joel Segal. "I fully understand that playing football in the NFL is a privilege, not a right, and I am truly thankful for the opportunity I have been given.

"As you can imagine, the last two years have given me time to re-evaluate my life, mature as an individual and fully understand the terrible mistakes I have made in the past and what type of life I must lead moving forward.

"Again, I want to thank the commissioner for the chance to return to the game I love and the opportunity to become an example of positive change."

For anyone interested in morality theater, Vick played his role. He had no choice.

But on this day, Goodell certainly deserves no thanks from Vick, as the commissioner did nothing compassionate or lenient or even proper. A man just spent two years in a federal penitentiary, but for Goodell -- the commissioner of a sport in which a grown man runs around with a ball until someone else tackles him to the ground -- doing real, hard time wasn't enough.

Goodell had to show how tough he is by piling on, to remind everyone who wears the pads and makes the game what it is just who the real boss is.

He accomplished much with his ruling, and let's be clear what that ruling is: It is hardly a "partial reinstatement." It is, in all likelihood, a five-game suspension. Goodell very possibly won't consider Vick for full reinstatement until well into October.

But it is also more than that, for any team already hesitant about signing Vick will be even more reluctant now. It is unknown what kind of playing shape Vick is in or how much his physical skills might have eroded. As a player, he has always been an acquired taste for a team because of his nontraditional skill set, and now a team must decide whether signing a player who won't be available for at least 25 percent of the season is even worth a roster spot.

Moreover, when Goodell's "evaluation" period ends Oct. 6, the commissioner actually could extend the suspension, exacting his power upon Vick even further. There is something childish and vindictive and personal about this, and that is the secondary, more sinister element in the ruling. For all the headlines of Vick's being "reinstated," even partially, Goodell still has not said just when Vick will be eligible to appear in an NFL game, which is how players are paid. And already, Vick has been suspended from the NFL since Aug. 24, 2007.

Vick is not owed the right to play football in the National Football League, but this is hardly the issue. The first issue is power -- how much Goodell has and how he is using it.

The second is about penitence, and whether a person can ever truly pay a debt to society.

Goodell has demonstrated that he is hawkish about "personal conduct," the platform on which his commissionership has had the highest visibility through his first three years in the office. He clearly showed that he has not forgotten whatever personal breach took place when he met with Vick in 2007 after the earliest news of the illegal dogfighting operation surfaced. Goodell has never spoken about the contents of that meeting, but it has been implied for two years that Vick lied to him about the level of Vick's involvement in the scandal.

Goodell revealed something else in the Vick decision Monday: He is not the friend of the players, despite his odd statement that a ruling prohibiting Vick from playing at the start of the season somehow "gives him the best chance for success." (Who is Goodell to decide -- rather than Vick himself or the coach of one of Goodell's teams -- what the best path to success is? If he wants Vick to succeed, why prevent him from participating in 25-plus percent of the season?) If you happen to be DeMaurice Smith, the brand-new head of the NFL Players Association, the Vick suspension is an insult you should not forget, especially when it is time to negotiate the next collective bargaining agreement. If Smith didn't regard Goodell as an adversary previously, he should now.

As in every professional league, the commissioner's responsibilities lie toward one constituency: the owners. The players do not have a say in who is hired to be commissioner; nor do they have input into how long he serves. It is a popular fiction that the commissioner stands impartially to protect the integrity of the game.

It's unclear whom or what Goodell thinks he is protecting by keeping Vick out of the game until October, but the suspension obviously benefits the owners. As long as the commissioner is empowered in the area of player conduct without some form of independent third-party appeal process, Goodell will have a cudgel that keeps the players down. And anything that reduces player power inherently strengthens the owners' position. Smith knows this.

This is not about sympathy for Vick. He does not deserve sympathy. He was not treated unfairly by the justice system. He not only bankrolled a dogfighting ring that tortured and killed animals, but was intimately involved with its daily operation. He struck at the nerve of common decency.

But unlike so many of the rich and famous and powerful who can use their advantages to escape accountability, Vick went to prison. He lost his money. It is unclear whether he even has the skills to play football after more than two years away from the game. He is already humiliated, disgraced. Of what value is Goodell's additional sanction?

So, what, in the end, is this all about? In his letter to Vick, Goodell sounded haughty and uncharitable, and perhaps his paternalistic words signaled his precise level of animus toward Vick -- that Vick wounded him, broke his trust. Vick hasn't played in a game since the 2006 season finale for Atlanta, and so has thus far served a suspension of 32 games. Defensive end Leonard Little took a woman's life -- actually killed a human being -- when he drove drunk, and he was suspended eight games. Running back Jamal Lewis was involved in selling drugs, and he served a two-game suspension.

Goodell's failure in the Vick ruling comes from trying to associate a harsh punishment with toughness. Suspending Vick further is nothing more than the latest example of false muscle, his actions suggesting that even a federal conviction and prison sentence aren't sanction enough. And now the commissioner has opened himself up to hypocrisy sure to come, for clearly the Vick suspension will serve as precedent in perpetuity for every future player infraction. Otherwise, Goodell will look small and vindictive, very much as he does today.

Goodell had an opportunity to be the bigger person Monday, but he chose to kick a fallen man one last time, for extra measure.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.