Bountygate seems to have finally seen its end this week. Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue vacated player punishment previously put in place by Roger Goodell, reversing the commissioner’s decision in a move that clearly undermined Goodell’s authority.
Seeing the name Paul Tagliabue in NFL headlines brought back old memories. The NFL has changed since Commissioner Goodell took over, and Tagliabue’s contributions to the Bountygate investigation reminded us of the stark contrast between the present and previous NFL commissioner.
There are countless examples of the differing commissioning styles between the two men. Both have made their mark on NFL policy, and these approaches can be compared to see how the NFL has changed direction – but I think the difference goes beyond that.
It is really just as simple as how often you heard their names.
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Since taking over as commissioner, Roger Goodell has done everything to keep himself in the headlines. From taking a stern stance on every example of player misconduct to blowing up the bounty scandal, Goodell has kept NFL discipline a hot topic of discussion.
In contrast, during Tagliabue’s reign, his name was seldom heard. As commissioner, there were certainly issues that required his attention, but you just didn’t see “Tagliabue” in many headlines. Tagliabue’s approach was to let the game speak for itself and let the NFL handle issues behind closed doors. Roger Goodell does not mind the media frenzy that surrounds all of the decisions that he thrusts into the public sphere, and as a result player punishments and actions have come under increased scrutiny.
Goodell has turned the NFL into a league that spends a lot of time caring about small issues. Whenever anyone is arrested these days, the first question is: how will Goodell punish him? Every issue of player conduct has become a big news story, and that is a direct result of Goodell’s authoritarian rule changes. Goodell made a point to emphasize player conduct when he took over, and this is very clear from the outside.
I am not saying that NFL players shouldn’t be punished for illegal weapons, drunk driving, or any other criminal offense. Goodell’s desire to hold players more accountable for their actions and to represent “the shield” is understandable. The way he approaches it is the problem.
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The NFL is by far the most popular professional sports league in the United States. NBA commissioner David Stern at one point forced players to wear coats and jackets on NBA benches as opposed to street clothes. That move was made because Stern was concerned about the NBA’s image. The NFL, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be overly concerned with its image because the game speaks for itself.
Petty issues like player conduct only become stories when the commissioner makes them significant. The NFL has something that every other league wishes they had: it is cool. People complain about long basketball and hockey seasons that become uninteresting, but no one questions the NFL. The commissioner of such a popular league needs to take advantage of this and handle private matters behind closed doors.