As a longtime sports executive of the savviest kind, Dave Checketts understands that power circles actually take the shape of a pyramid. In the NFL hierarchy, no one is above commissioner Roger Goodell. For several days, with his ownership group's bid for the Rams an open secret, Checketts listened to reporters rant and the Reverend Al Sharpton steam over the new money honey on his arm, Rush Limbaugh, who has for years expertly traded on white fear to make green. Once the commissioner weighed in on the Limbaugh debate, calling his bullying radio act "divisive" on Oct. 13, Checketts needed less than 12 hours to have an epiphany: Limbaugh was a deal killer, and he'd have to be punted from the group. What proved to be good fodder for Rush's show—he told the saga on the air of how Checketts led him on—was also an affirmation of Goodell's power.
Why is Goodell's voice the only one that carries in the NFL? During the Limbaugh imbroglio few players in a league that is 70% African-American were willing to speak out about his possibly becoming their employer—even after NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith issued a call-to-arms e-mail on Oct. 10. "I have asked our players to embrace their roles not only in the game of football but also as players and partners in the business of the NFL," wrote Smith, who was voted in as union boss after Gene Upshaw's death in August 2008. "Our men are strong and proud sons, fathers, spouses, and I am proud when they stand up, understand this is their profession and speak with candor and blunt honesty about how they feel."
And then? Radio silence. By most counts, only seven players voiced their concerns once Limbaugh's ownership bid came to light. None of the St. Louis players spoke out. "I'm paying attention, but I'm not even touching that one," Rams running back Steven Jackson told reporters.
"We're not discouraged," says union spokesman George Atallah. Actually, Smith should be freaked out of his labor leader's mind. Sharpton was right when he said, "It's remarkable in that [Limbaugh] was denied by other powerful whites." It wasn't activist players but an activist commissioner who did him in. Where was the kind of member outrage that burned in 2003, when dozens of players freely rebuked Limbaugh for saying the Eagles' Donovan McNabb was praised by the media only because he was a black quarterback?
Smith has taken over a player base cowed by Goodell, who controls the rights and privileges of guys who willingly throw their bodies into a wood chipper every week. This disciplinary era began justifiably enough after the Bengals turned the jailhouse into their team hotel in 2006. Since instituting the Personal Conduct Policy in '07—which has given him wide latitude to act punitively on NFL image issues both on and beyond the field—Goodell has embraced the roles of judge and jury, even after players have had their day in court. Vikings defensive end Jared Allen pleads no contest to one DUI charge in 2006 and enters a diversion program to resolve another? That's a two-game suspension. Bills running back Marshawn Lynch pleads guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge in '09? Three games. Goodell has even played censor: When Redskins running back Clinton Portis tried to defend Michael Vick's dogfighting, the commissioner issued a statement denouncing Portis. "We have the responsibility of being in a leadership position," says NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. "That's why we try to get out front on issues and take them head-on."
No doubt Goodell is a strong commissioner in a difficult time, but by becoming the decider, isn't he overreaching? The NFL has become a trickle-down morality play in which coaches and owners follow his lead. Yes, the T.O. types still perform their trash-talking theatrics on TV, but these same players are scolded for—guess what?—bad manners. One Twitter tweet about the lousy food at Chargers training camp and cornerback Antonio Cromartie was fined $2,500 by coach Norv Turner. One $3 water bottle swiped by a Browns player drew a $1,701 fine from the Hoodie wannabe Eric Mangini.
Over the past two years I've heard players say they don't talk openly about health issues—like the hot debate over concussions—for fear of being cut. They won't question a coach's oppressive rules for the same reason. Imagine David Stern successfully telling Stephon Marbury to zip it. And would Bud Selig be able to suspend a baseball player for a year who was not yet charged with a crime, as Goodell did defensive back Pacman Jones? The NFL tough guys are wary of scrutiny 24/7. The Washington Post ran a story last week about three prominent Redskins who wanted coach Jim Zorn to receive a vote of confidence from management. All three players requested anonymity.
Worn-down players make for a vulnerable union. If Smith's membership has been conditioned to be passive—even letting Goodell take the ball on Limbaugh—how will the players ever rise up before the collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2010 season? Silence won't be golden then. It will cost them dearly.
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It wasn't activist players but an activist commissioner who did in Limbaugh. Few players spoke out, even after their union chief issued a call to arms.