Roger Goodell is the commissioner of the National Football League. He makes sure the public never loses sight of that fact through the frequent extension of his own authority.
Sure, there are by-laws for every league office, and there are responsibilities every commissioner has associated with his specific sport; but there also seems to be a growing gray area -- especially in the NFL -- related to the limits of a commissioner's power.
The personal conduct policy, the fines for on-field incidents, the NFL Lockout, and the penalties issued to the Saints in light of BountyGate: Goodell has been criticized by fans or players in each and every one of those instances. But at least in those cases, there was the feeling in the back of everyone's mind that the guy knew what he was doing, even if his decisions weren't the most popular.
There was the feeling that he was proceeding in the best interests of the league.
That he was responding and acting in concert with the will of the owners.
That there was a logic to his judgments.
But this Redskins-Cowboys-Salary-Cap fiasco -- well, now it looks like Goodell and the owners who back him have actually lost it.
Let's recap: the Cowboys and Redskins have been stripped of a combined $46 million (10 for DAL, $36 for WAS) in salary cap space over the next two years as a result of willfully disobeying the league's directives with their actions in the uncapped year. That said, to the best of anyone's knowledge, neither team broke any rules when they front-loaded new salaries and re-engineered old contracts in the 2010 season to take advantage of the one-time opportunity to exploit the system.
Indeed, the only rules the teams violated were directives from the league that allegedly laid out guidelines for what teams could and could not spend, could and not do, despite the absence of actual, binding by-laws. The Cowboys and Redskins did violate those directives and have been penalized for it -- even after the league approved every one of the now-suspect contracts in the first place.
Beyond asking whether those teams should or should not be sanctioned (which by the way, they shouldn't), focus instead on the that fact the league has brought scandal upon itself... willfully.
Because now, without any consideration of what's fair or unfair for Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder, every football fan should be asking: if front-loading new contracts and and re-negotiating old deals to take advantage of this one situation made sense this one time (which by the way, it did), why wasn't every team doing it?
See, there's questions about Goodell's power to act as judge, jury and executioner when it comes to handing out fines for on-field hits. And there are clear gaps in logic in the application of the personal conduct policy. And there are compelling arguments that the commissioner's concerns for player safety are rendered hypocritical by his wanting to expand the season to 18 games and his apparent lack of concern for the financial restitution of the players. And there are definitely some fans down in New Orleans right now, and football analysts across the country, who think what happened to the Saints was downright outlandish.
But almost every one of those arguments and questions ultimately falls short of anything truly unreasonable on the grounds that Goodell could always be defended as protecting the brand of the NFL for its owners. Because even if he was "abusing" his power to suspend or fine, there was a sound, even if unpopular, logic behind it.
But this situation with Cowboys and Redskins has outed Goodell. The league's decision to sanction clubs for breaking rules that didn't exist has called every single one of Goodell's other suspect acts fans may have moved past back into question.
Because now, the league office isn't fining or suspending players for being too violent or getting arrested, or coaches and generals managers for breaking rules, it's sanctioning teams for not obeying it's interpretation of it's own authority. And in the process, 28 owners have been exposed for engaging in activities that are being labeled as "collusion" (note: the New Orleans Saints and Oakland Raiders have been cited by the league for lesser infractions).
Maybe it's unfair to pin all this on Goodell. After all, he only serves at the behest of the owners. So whether its just the commissioner, or the commissioner and the league's primary shareholders, its now evident that the powers that be in the NFL have lost touch with the limits of their right to govern.
By sanctioning the Redskins and Cowboys, the NFL has brought scandal upon itself in the name of punishing two franchises out of principle and not rule.
So, no, this might not all be on Goodell. But someone has become so drunk with power that its now harming the shield he's been fighting to protect. And, given his track record, it's hard not to look his way first.