PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL can occasionally make for strange bedfellows. Take the Steelers and the Ravens. They are the Athens and Sparta of the NFL, in a state of perpetual violent conflict. But players on both sides of the rivalry have recently found some common ground on one subject: They're convinced that commissioner Roger Goodell is abusing his authority. Says Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, "I think he has way too much power." So does Steelers counterpart James Harrison, who condemns Goodell's "puppeteering and dictatorship."
Baltimore and Pittsburgh aren't the only teams beefing with the league, of course. Following Paul Tagliabue's recent decision to overturn the suspensions that Goodell handed out in the Saints' Bountygate scandal, even scandal-averse stars like Drew Brees were throwing punches. "The league office and commissioner Goodell have very little to no credibility with us as players," he told The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.
But the dissent has reached a fever pitch in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, which are, not coincidentally, among the league's hardest-hitting teams. The defensive players in particular complain that they are being fined (or even suspended) for helmet-to-helmet collisions that are impossible to avoid at full speed -- and that their wallets are subsidizing the NFL's campaign to convince fans that it is not ignoring the long-term damage caused by head injuries. "All of a sudden the NFL is about to be sued for all the stuff they haven't protected over the years and they haven't done," says Ravens free safety Ed Reed. "Now you want to take it out on us?"
In the past year, both Reed and Harrison have been slapped with one-game suspensions for what the NFL determined was a "series of illegal hits." Reed's suspension in November was overturned by an arbiter after an appeal. Harrison served his after he lost a similar appeal in 2011. The divergent outcomes left both players feeling that the process of deciding why some hits are punished and others are not is arbitrary at best. "When [Reed] was suspended, the media started bitching about how unfair
it was," Harrison says. "All of a sudden his suspension gets overturned. Where was the media when I was suspended? Why is the NFL listening when you had everyone crying on his behalf? That's the kind of puppeteering and dictatorship I'm talking about with Goodell."
It's no secret there has been tension between the Steelers and Goodell for several years, nearly dating to when he succeeded Tagliabue in 2006. Under Goodell, Harrison has been fined more than any other player in NFL history, and Steelers safeties Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu have voiced the opinion that the commissioner has repeatedly overstepped his bounds, especially with how he chooses to handle discipline.
In fact, backup QB Charlie Batch says Goodell's authority is the main reason the Steelers were the only team in the NFL in 2011 to vote against ratifying the current labor agreement, which runs through the 2020 season. "[Goodell]
Of course, that vote is exactly what complicates the issue: The commissioner's power exists, after all, only because it's granted to him by the NFLPA. Moreover, says NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, Goodell doesn't have any power that his predecessors didn't also have; he has just chosen to wield it differently. "The commissioner's authority under the CBA has been the same under three commissioners -- [Pete] Rozelle, Tagliabue and Goodell," Aiello wrote in an email to The Mag. "It has not changed since the first CBA in 1977, other than giving the union a bigger role in disciplinary matters."
Reed's case is a prime example of how the player rhetoric suggesting that Goodell runs the league like a dictator doesn't always align with the facts. The Ravens safety went from a one-game suspension and a potential loss of $423,529 in salary down to a $50,000 fine after he won his appeal. Moreover, the decision to suspend Reed was initially made by Merton Hanks, the vice president of football operations for the NFL, a Goodell appointee and former player who serves with the approval of the NFLPA. "Guys like to say Roger is judge, jury and executioner," says Ravens center Matt Birk. "Well, here is an instance where that's not the case."
The leadership of the NFLPA is equally quick to point out that checks and balances are in place. Fines, for example, can be appealed to one member of a two-person panel (currently Art Shell and Ted Cottrell) that is jointly appointed by and compensated by the league and the NFLPA.
"Any player who has gotten suspended over any issue since the CBA was signed in 2011 understands that their union has fought for their fair due process rights under the CBA," says George Atallah, the NFLPA's assistant executive director of external affairs. "I think the outcomes speak for themselves."
Atallah would include the Bountygate players as part of that assessment. Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith were able to play while their appeals progressed through multiple hearings; Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, who maintained his innocence throughout the process, was exonerated by Tagliabue.
"Back in March, the union was being publicly berated, giving up all these rights to Roger's authority," Atallah says. "But here we are nine months later, and it turns out the CBA actually does have checks and balances in it to make sure that players have a fair due process."
Still, appeals process notwithstanding, some Ravens and Steelers players can't help wondering occasionally if they're being punished for refusing to shut up and fall in line. The Ravens had been flagged for 25 "roughness penalties" through 14 games this season -- more than any team in the league had accumulated during a full season since 2000. (The NFL average is 10 this season.) Meanwhile, the Steelers' 58.36 penalty yards per game was their highest figure since 2003.
Is the league subtly punishing two of its biggest critics? That might sound like an absurd conspiracy theory, the kind of thing you'd see on a message board, not hear in a locker room. But it's also a theory several Steelers won't dismiss outright, especially after what happened with Emmanuel Sanders. In October, following the Steelers' Week 7 win over the Bengals, the receiver became the first player in NFL history to be fined for supposedly faking an injury. "I want to appeal it, but I'm not going to," Sanders said at the time. "It's just a lot of distractions for me. I'm just like, Okay, whatever. I went in, I
Ultimately, whether or not Goodell has the power to punish people arbitrarily or unfairly might be beside the point. A number of players believe he does, which is why some of the youngest, and most optimistic, Ravens and Steelers players are already looking ahead to 2021, when the union will have its next realistic chance to push back. Until then, some players, like Reed and Harrison, will keep up the verbal warfare. Others, if only for self-preservation, will simply try to stay out of the crossfire.
Pittsburgh nose tackle Casey Hampton, a five-time Pro Bowler grinding his way through his 12th NFL season, was recently sitting on a chair in the corner of the Steelers' locker room, tugging on his stubborn knee brace, when he paused to consider a question that had just been posed to him. Do people in this locker room really believe Goodell has it out for them?
"Are you trying to get me fined?" Hampton said.
There was no anger in the big man's voice. In fact, all 325 pounds of Hampton began to jiggle as he leaned back in his chair, his chuckle expanding into a full-blown belly-shaking guffaw.
"I'm definitely not touching that, man!" Hampton said through his laughter. "That goes to integrity of the game, and that's a big fine right there.
"I can't afford that. I've got kids!"