GOLDBERG ON FOOTBALL: Goodell can't seem to escape the off-field escapades of NF

GOLDBERG ON FOOTBALL: Goodell can't seem to escape the off-field escapades of NF

GOLDBERG ON FOOTBALL: Goodell can't seem to escape the off-field escapades of NFL players
July 27, 2007

NEW YORK (AP) -It's not as if there weren't important issues facing Roger Goodell when he took over as NFL commissioner 11 months ago. They're still there.

But revenue sharing, a labor contract that could be a major problem soon, stadium construction and other issues are deep on the back burner now while Goodell concentrates on the off-field transgressions of players. Especially when that minority of players - 40-50 of more than 2,500 currently on rosters - includes Michael Vick, one of the NFL's highest-profile players and certainly one of its most exciting.

Goodell would prefer to be out of the spotlight. He loves football and likes mixing with players and coaches, something he plans to do with camps open - provided he's not involved in some court case somewhere. He was elected commissioner in large part because he's dealt very well with a range of less glamorous issues in more than two decades of jobs ranging from intern and chauffeur to chief operating officer.

But those areas are being handled these days by subordinates while Goodell deals with lawyers and his security staff about the behavioral problems of the likes of Adam ``Pacman'' Jones, Tank Johnson, Chris Henry, and Odell Thurman, all suspended for at least half of this season. Plus, of course, Vick - guilty or not - has become an international symbol of NFL player misbehavior.

Those close to him say it hasn't been a problem because he trusts the people under him - many of whom he had a role in hiring, such as Eric Grubman, the league's chief financial officer. They note that makes Goodell more comfortable delegating than his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, who liked to be directly involved in everything.

So it's been easier for Goodell to focus on the most immediate problem: player discipline.

It's also been a huge task.

No sooner had he finished dealing with Jones, Johnson, et al, than Vick was indicted on charges of being involved in killing and torturing dogs. Not only did that result in a nationwide outcry against the Falcons quarterback, but the nature of the allegations horrified Goodell and others throughout the NFL.

``Personally, owning a dog, being a dog lover myself, nothing upsets me more than what he's being charged with,'' said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, who is as deeply involved in the player misbehavior issues as is the commissioner.

That comment came at a long-scheduled meeting between Upshaw and Goodell over one of the league's festering issues: treatment of retired players, especially older ones. But the meeting, which also included a group of retirees, turned primarily into a Vick-fest. No shock: I the nearly two weeks since July 17, when the indictment came down, dealing with Vick has been almost a full-time job for Goodell.

When animal rights demonstrators picketed the NFL offices, he was two miles away at the headquarters of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals discussing how that group would help educate NFL players on animal treatment. It wasn't a stunt, because Goodell feels just as strongly as Upshaw about the allegations.

But he's also aware of the legal swamp he's in.

In addition to talking to animal rights groups, he's been consulting with Upshaw, his own staff, lawyers and the Falcons. On Monday, he spent a good part of the day convincing Arthur Blank, Atlanta's owner, not to suspend Vick for four games until the NFL had determined what it would do. Then the league took the middle ground of ordering Vick to stay out of a training camp that would have been a total zoo.

The next step might be tricky.

Goodell and his advisers know that any suspension could be challenged in court if it comes before a conviction. When the commissioner suspended Jones, for example, a disorderly conduct case in Tennessee that was provisionally dismissed by a judge had been reinstated when the Titans cornerback didn't live up to a provision requiring him to stay out of trouble.

Still, league officials were pondering the legal ramifications when Jones dropped the appeal of his one-year sentence.

And just a week ago, the NFL was sticking to its ``due process'' line on Vick - like all Americans, he is innocent until proven guilty. But that was before the demonstrations and the expressions of outrage everywhere.

``I do worry about that,'' Goodell replied when asked about prejudging Vick. ``Due process is important. So we are not trying to circumvent the legal process or the criminal process. We respect that and think it needs to move forward. On the other hand, the interest of myself and Gene overall is the National Football League. What are we going to do that's responsive to the National Football League and our fans?''

Or what's responsive to the commissioner's own feelings?

``It's incomprehensible to me that this could happen and the fact that it actually exists in our society,'' Goodell said of the allegations of dog torture. ``That was hard to swallow in and of itself. And then to have an allegation that an NFL player is involved with that is more troubling. It's something that we have as a society that is being brought to light.''

So as camps open, Goodell will be involved with the NFL's security department and with Eric Holder, a deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration, who has been retained to gather facts about Vick's involvement in dogfighting.

Then he will have to try to convince Vick and his lawyers to do what the league, the union and the Falcons want - likely a year's leave of absence until the court case is concluded.

If Vick doesn't accede to that request, then Goodell gets into the murky area of suspension before trial.

And maybe some time in 2008, he can concentrate on the other pressing issues. They are not as attention grabbing as the indictment of a star quarterback. But they are more important in the long run.

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