Roger Goodell, meet Judge Kensaw Mountain Landis

From almost the beginning of his administration, I have not been a fan of NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell.   I certainly hope that he is a good and decent man, and I believe that he works hard and sincerely believes in the work he does.

The NFL reigns atop the sports world in particular and the tv ratings in general.  One might hope that they would enjoy the fruits of their spoils.  After all, no one lives forever. But this is not happening, and that should not surprise us.

Dominant empires often become more touchy, not less, more antsy to defend its territory, less able to enjoy what they have.  Athens dominated the Mediterranean, but could not bend even a smidge after they put Sparta in a tough spot prior to the Peloponnesian War.  In a memorable passage from Thucydides, Pericles states,

I would have none of you imagine that he will be fighting for a small matter if we refuse to annul the Megarian decree, of which they make so much, telling us that its revocation would prevent the war. You should have no lingering uneasiness about this; you are not really going to war for a trifle. For in the seeming trifle is involved the trial and confirmation of your whole purpose. If you yield to them in a small matter, they will think that you are afraid, and will immediately dictate some more oppressive condition; but if you are firm, you will prove to them that they must treat you as their equals.

Sometimes, this “firmness” leads to “disaster,” as it did for Athens, as it did to Rome with Hannibal over Saguntum, as it did with Napoleon and Russia, and so on.  The great power and wealth empires accumulate seems, by evil magic, to force them to believe that any concession on anything will make them lose all.  Pericles demonstrated this very attitude.  He told Athens,

Nor is it any longer possible for you to give up this empire … Your empire is now like a tyranny: it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go.

Thus, their power traps them into rigidity, which in time, brings them down.  They think in one direction. The cry is always “onward,” which bloats them unnecessarily.  The NFL parodies such empires with their recent move to Thursday night games all season long.  Imperial overstretch might be just around the corner.

Alas for NFL fans, Roger Goddell shows some of the same symptoms that afflicted Pericles and other leaders of dominant empires. The NFL Players Association did not help matters by signing away tremendous power to him in the recent collective bargaining agreement, and with this power he has become quite touchy.  The exhibits, please. . .

  • The Replacement Refs — Despite all the talk of player safety, Goddell has decided to use inexperienced referees rather than pony up a few million.  It’s not as if the regular referees are holding the league hostage to unreasonable demands.  The substance of their complaint seems entirely reasonable, as they just want to keep their previously existing pensions recently eliminated by the NFL.
  • The retroactive punishment of Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder
  • The arbitrary punishments of players with no due process.  Thankfully, some of the punishments of Saints players has recently been overturned.

Goddell is not the first sports commissioner to face the perils of unchallenged power.  Years ago baseball stood atop the American sports landscape in a more dominant position than football is today, though admittedly it was not as lucrative.   When baseball faced the “Black Sox Scandal” after the 1919 World Series, they hired the iron-willed federal judge Kensaw Mountain Landis.  Almost all agree that Landis helped drastically curtail gambling in baseball, restoring its image.  Almost all also agree that Landis went too far in his ban of Shoeless Joe Jackson, a classic and expected overreaching of power to make a “point.”

After the Sox scandal settled, Landis continued to overreach and attempted to ban players  from barnstorming in the off-season.  But he had the good sense to know when he was beaten.  Babe Ruth challenged the ban and played in off-season games (famously quipping that, “the old man can go jump in a lake”).  But Landis backed down in the end of his own accord.  He recognized that there were certain crusades he could not fight.

We shall see if Goodell has it in him to do the same thing.  He has put a great deal of focus on the league’s image regarding player safety.  The problems with the replacement refs, however, are multiplying quickly, and soon the games themselves will become meaningless.  If a handful of league stars would strike in the interest of player safety, the lockout would be settled in short order.

I am pulling for Goodell and the owners to transform themselves, to put substance before image.  The well being of the NFL Empire may depend on it.