Look behind you, David Stern. You might be the best commissioner in sports, but someone is gaining on you.
Roger Goodell, less than a year on the job, has staked more of a claim to that title in the past month than some of his counterparts have in their decades in the position combined. As for his predecessor, noted museum enthusiast Paul Tagliabue, he's not even in the discussion.
The portrayal of Goodell as the NFL's "new sheriff in town" is mildly (all right, exceedingly) cliched. But it fits. Especially since he's cleaning up not only the blue-collar crime in the streets, but also the white-collar crime in the offices.
How'd you like it when he laid that hand on the teams themselves - on his own bosses, essentially?
According to yesterday's USA Today, earlier this week, as the draft approached and the latest round of leaks surfaced about prospects' flaws that could affect their draft positions, Goodell stepped in and said enough is enough. Wherever news was allowed to escape about three high first-round prospects admitting to trying marijuana during interviews at the scouting combine, Goodell said, it had better stop escaping. You will be disciplined if this happens again, he said, and you might be disciplined now if I find out who leaked it.
Such leaks, he reportedly told teams in memos sent to each, are considered "conduct detrimental to the game."
As was the discipline handed down on Jones and Henry - as punishment for them and deterrents to everyone else - Goodell was merely cleaning up a mess Tagliabue had left him. Just as player misconduct had grown enough to smother the NFL's image, so had the character assassination explained away as routine posturing to gain draft advantage.
Thus, when Vince Young's Wonderlic score became public this time last year, the reaction was that all's fair in love, war and the draft - and the silence from anyone connected with the NFL was deafening. Nobody seemed to mind that one of the best-known players in the draft, a marquee name at a marquee position, was being slandered this way, that an ugly stereotype was being perpetrated, that this could do damage to Young, to the team that drafted him and to the league overall. It's just the way the game is played, was the message.
Goodell is changing the outgoing message. You like to think that if he had been in charge last year, he would have done it for Young, and spared him from having "Wonderlic" permanently fused to his life story. Goodell might also have had the Titans' LenDale White thanking him, too, since a fast-moving 11th-hour rumor of a failed drug test, which never was proved, might be part of the reason he dropped to the second round last spring.
The way Goodell has handled the player-conduct mess and this confidentiality breach is the very definition of "evenhanded." The three future draft picks whose comments went public - Calvin Johnson, Gaines Adams and Amobi Okoye - deserve better than to be both the butt of jokes and victims of someone's self-serving agenda.
Goodell's move this week gave the players the treatment they deserve, just as Jones and Henry got the treatment they deserve.
And it doesn't hurt that Goodell won the general player population's support on the code of conduct that guided the suspensions of Jones and Henry. They don't unanimously agree with the punishments themselves - as Randallstown's Domonique Foxworth, a Broncos cornerback, said in this space last week - but they respect the process of making it and the spirit of the decision and the way Goodell included them in it.
Tagliabue earned a lot while commissioner - he was a good earner, like Paulie Walnuts. But it's hard to say he earned a lot of respect. More revulsion than respect, actually, as Baltimore fans eager for expansion in the early 1990s will always remember.
The reporters he looked down his nose at for 17 years, they remember, too. His answers to legitimate questions about player misconduct, fair hiring, labor negotiations and franchise and stadium roulette left the impression that he was insulted by even being asked.
One of Goodell's first good impressions was at the Super Bowl, when his state-of-the-NFL news conference consisted of his addressing questions and even, in some cases, providing answers. Not always good, clear, non-evasive answers. But at least it didn't feel like the hundreds of journalists in the room had each shown up with spinach between their teeth.
Impressing us media types, though, is hardly Goodell's mission. It's to represent his sport fairly and equally. It's to act in everybody's best interest - players, owners, franchises, coaches, even paying customers. It's what Stern has done in the NBA for nearly a quarter-century, even though he occasionally tips too far one way or the other lately. Then again, he corrects the shift by, for example, blasting esteemed official Joey Crawford.
Stern has always acted like the commissioner for the whole sport, not just for the rich guys who pay his salary. Goodell is showing early signs of following those footsteps.
Better yet, he's leaving more impressive footsteps in his own sport.
Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog