Published March 6, 2012 - 2:16pm
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The one conclusion I’ve drawn from the NFL’s freshly minted “Scrutiny of the Bounty” scandal, as Deadspin calls it, is that Gregg Williams is a better manager than Roger Goodell. Yes, the largely compliant NFL press corps has rushed to condemn Williams as a threat to the very existence of professional football—while simultaneously proclaiming this is Roger Goodell’s finest hour—but when you actually look at Williams’ alleged war crimes, what you find is a corporate middle manager doing his best to motivate the employees. In football terms, what Williams did was akin to Andy Bernard on “The Office” motivating his salesman by agreeing to get a tattoo on his ass.
In contrast, Roger Goodell is the classic office bully, a man who confuses management with fear and intimidation. Goodell desperately seeks the approval of the press at the expense of the NFL’s 1,500 players, without whose efforts the commissioner—a title more appropriate for a government bureaucrat than a trade association president—would not presently earn an eight-figure salary. Goodell contributes nothing to the NFL as a marketable product yet manages to manufacture one artificial crisis after another to demonstrate his “leadership.”
That said, there is a method to Goodell’s madness. The NFL faces a number of class actions from former players alleging the league’s complicity in traumatic head injuries that affect the players’ post-retirement health and quality of life. Previously, Goodell confined his half-assed ass-covering to arbitrary and capricious fines of players for in-game hits deemed excessive after-the-fact. Now, with the Williams scandal, Goodell raised the stakes, implying he will destroy individual careers and fine organizations if they go too far in promoting tough defensive hits—what purists used to call “football.”
The NFL is gradually legislating defense out of the game. There are solid business reasons to do this. American sports fans tend to like a lot of scoring. They really like to wager on a lot of scoring. More so than the fear of concussion-related lawsuits, the enormous grassroots popularity of fantasy football forced the NFL to re-think its competitive model. The fact that lawsuits and the specter of liability—or perhaps even worse, lengthy discovery that would expose the NFL’s other shady business practices—now exist only heightens Goodell’s sense of urgency to transform football into something more like its minor-league Arena Football counterpart.
If you’re a diehard college football fan who views the NFL as little more than a weekend gambling diversion, you may look at the Williams affair and dismiss its relevance to your beloved SEC team. But the same cultural shift Goodell is trying to stay ahead of with the NFL affects all levels of football. The concussion issue is even more acute at the high school and college level, where skittish parents play a major role, and where the lack of financial rewards (relative to the NFL) makes it easier for a player to walk away. If the class actions against the NFL start producing substantive settlements, the plaintiffs’ bar will quickly try to replicate their success against deep-pocketed football schools and conferences like the SEC.
SEC fans may be in for an especially painful shock given the strong defensive identity of schools like LSU and Alabama. The NFL’s war against defense will inevitably trickle down into the college ranks which, combined with administrators’ liability fears, will push college football down that same path of least resistance—more scoring, less defense. Keep in mind, Nick Saban and Les Miles are no spring chickens. They’ll likely be retired in ten years. Their successors are more likely to be cut from the cloth of Urban Meyer or Chris Petersen. Indeed, we may look back on this past season’s Alabama-LSU series as the high-water mark of defensive football in the United States.