Will Goodell Take The Fall For A Lockout?

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

My friend (and Sporting News Radio host) Steve Czaban has been asking, “What’s the worst that could happen?” with respect to a potential NFL lockout.

He means this to say that NFL owners are asking this question rhetorically and dismissively, as if they don’t fear any substantial negative consequences of shutting down their league, even for just a few weeks of the off-season.

Czaban has said, quite reasonably, that you never want to ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” because you don’t want to know the answer.

Here’s my answer. If there’s a protracted lockout — by which I mean it persists deep into the summer and threatens the regular season — I think there will be a call for a sacrificial lamb or scapegoat. We’re a culture that likes to assign blame (see the aftermath of the Tuscon mass killing).

There’s a ton of press assigned to cover the NFL, and as the lockout goes on, there going to get into more and more of a frenzy, partly because they’ll need a “hook” to keep readers interested — and partly because their own livelihoods are threatened should the lockout manage to reduce overall demand for professional football and the attached media services that depend on it.

Initially, I believe that most “mainstream” media types will turn against the players. The most visible faces and outlets naturally gravitate toward the supposed authority figures, the commissioner and the NFL owners. They’ll want to stay in the league’s good graces. It helps that many of these media folks resent the players. At best, they view players as servants who exist only to serve their need for football and story lines. We’ve already seen instances of inflammatory, anti-player reporting from media types who are close to the league office.

But the anti-player sentiment is unlikely to win mass-market appeal. Football fans want to see football players. They don’t want to see owners or commissioners (unless some sort of trophy presentation is involved). The media depends on these figures for sources and access, but the customer base at-large has no need for either. So when the time comes to assign blame, most folks will be looking for someone in a position of authority.

We know it won’t be any of the owners. The NFL is set up to carefully protect the owners from their own incompetence and, in some cases, outright criminal behaviour. And it’s not as if the league would ever voluntarily eliminate franchises through contraction.

That leaves one person: Commissioner Roger Goodell. Although he appears to enjoy solid support within the mainstream press — for now — the fans are indifferent to him and the players don’t appear to respect him. Certainly Goodell has done nothing to earn the respect of the players, whom he taunts and publicly flogs at every opportunity.

The owners have shown no sign of hanging Goodell out to dry. He is their man, after all. But we don’t know how the lockout will play if and when it begins. During the last NFL work stoppage, the 1987 player strike, there was no Internet or social media to worry about. ESPN was only a fraction of its current size and influence. An NFL lockout threatens a wide-scale media meltdown. Once the rioting starts, the rioters will demand someone’s head roll. Goodell is by far the most likely candidate.

The owners will need to deflect any blame for the lockout away from themselves. The players want a commissioner who respects them. The media wants a dramatic storyline to break through the tedium of covering the actuallabour negotiations. The fans just want some football. The commissioner is the odd man out.

None of this is to say the current labour impasse is Goodell’s fault. That’s why he’d be a sacrificial lamb. The owners are ultimately driving the bus here. Goodell is simply a lifelong bureaucrat who had the poor timing to be commissioner when all the bills came due for the poor decisions of made by his employers (and his predecessor).

I’m not predicting an imminent coup. But after a few weeks of “lockout,” don’t be surprised to hear reports of owners unhappy with Goodell’s leadership, or lack thereof, and calls for a stronger leader to manage the negotiations.

If outside politicians start to get involved — and I think they will — that will further undermine the perception of Goodell’s authority. Eventually there may be an understanding between certain owners and the players union that Goodell will quietly “resign” once a new agreement is reached. The owners pay off Goodell, hire a new commissioner, and everyone goes home happy.

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