On the Steelers: In need of neutrality
Roger Goodell's talk to Steelers season-ticket holders contained little that we didn't already know. It's pure public relations, to continue to hammer away for the benefit of the owners' side in this labor dispute. But why is the NFL commissioner doing the owners' bidding?
Yes, the owners hired him and they have the right to fire him as well, although that just happens in the NFL with commissioners. The owners hired Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue, but those two did not take such a strong stance on the owners' part in a labor dispute, at least not publicly where they shoved it in the face of their players. If anything, both men were criticized by some for staying in the background during labor disputes.
If the NFL commissioner could take a more neutral stance, even if his beliefs lean more toward the owners, the sides might get more accomplished in negotiations. As it stands now, the players distrust Goodell. An NFL commissioner is supposed to rule over all of the sport and be considered fair to all, including the players.
I've known Roger Goodell for many years. I was introduced to him about 20 years ago at a restaurant in Denver, and I've talked to him many times since then. I consider him a good and decent man who has the best interests of the sport in doing his job. But taking the lead in such a public way for the owners has not enhanced his reputation, especially with the players.
He continues to mention the 18-game season, as he did on the phone with Steelers ticket holders Thursday. That 18-game schedule seemed to be a done deal about a year ago and even the union was ready to approve it until the players -- led by many Steelers -- forcefully, publicly and continuously objected to it. Dan Rooney came out on their side, and it became a holdup to the point that management has taken the 18-game schedule off the table -- for now.
Naturally, the owners still want the 18-game schedule. That will be more ways to squeeze more money from the sport, especially with two more weeks of televised games. Ultimately, they may get it, too, by wearing down the players and trading off something else. With the owners pushing for the 18-game schedule while preaching safety in the game and handing out heavier fines for borderline hits, people saw right through the hypocrisy, and Goodell's reputation with the players suffered. It's only gone downhill by him leading the band for the owners, as he did with Steelers fans Thursday.
Maybe it's too late for the NFL commissioner to take a more neutral stance, show some leadership and try to bring both sides together rather than continue to carry the flag for just one. But if he did, this whole mess might be solved more quickly and more equitably.
There's nothing wrong with football in the spring. There wasn't any for years when I first covered the team for the PG, starting in 1985. There was a rookie minicamp shortly after the draft, and then nothing until Chuck Noll held his one-week minicamp starting Memorial Day. Many players didn't even lift weights at the "facility,'' which was then known as Three Rivers Stadium.
Bill Cowher changed much of that with an off-season program, but even he was later than others in holding practices in the spring. The union got involved trying to regulate those practices and the number that teams were permitted to hold in the spring. It wasn't that long ago that the media in Pittsburgh paid little attention to those practices, too. It's been only within the past five years or so that those spring practices became a must-see for the media in Pittsburgh, and they are covered nearly as well as the practices in September.
The reason the spring practices evolved over the past 20 years or so can be laid at the feet of keeping up with the Joneses. After a couple of teams started doing it, others worried that the teams that were practicing were gaining an advantage, and there is nothing a football coach hates more than another team gaining an edge. So, they all started doing it.
Therefore, if none of them can do it, no one gains an advantage and the absence of spring football will mean nothing except to those young players trying to make the team. Some rookies drafted later and those not drafted at all will find it more difficult, but that will benefit some fringe veterans who otherwise might have lost their jobs to those rookies. The employment number among players in the NFL won't dip, but the age of those filling the jobs might change.
Under such circumstances, a team with as stable and veteran a lineup as the Steelers might gain an advantage during a longer lockout. The real danger for all involved is that if there is no spring football and no movement in negotiations, fall football is threatened and then everyone loses ---- except those other sports competing with the NFL in the fall and other activities Americans discover during any pro football darkness.
• Add one more former Steelers player still active in the league who played in Three Rivers Stadium, Mike Vrabel. He's the oldest, drafted from Ohio State on the third round in 1997. The Steelers could not "find" a position for the linebacker. They even tried him at defensive tackle in their dime defense. Nothing worked and he left as a free agent after the 2000 season just in time to help the New England Patriots win three Super Bowls. Vrabel now plays for Kansas City.
• It's kind of sad to see Willie Parker beg the Steelers to "resign 39," and encourage fans to do the same. It's not going to happen. The Steelers did bring back a handful of their former players last season through free agency and one trade, but that won't happen with Fast Willie because at age 30 and because of some injuries, his strengths are not his strengths anymore. He will forever go down in their history for his accomplishments, including that record 75-yard run in Super Bowl XL.
• Ben Roethlisberger organized a handful of workouts for the Steelers offense, including some linemen, but they have not been ongoing. He, his fiancé, Bill Cowher, Jerome Bettis and a handful of Steelers teammates attended the premiere Thursday night of "Hangover II" in Los Angeles.
First Published May 22, 2011 12:00 am