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In first year, Goodell stars as the NFL's conduct sheriff

The Baltimore Sun

It was a year ago Saturday that the stodgy, arrogant lawyer handed his office keys to the young, hip former public relations intern. And yet, Roger Goodell had no interest in commemorating his one-year anniversary as commissioner of the NFL. None.

"It's what we call a non-event," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an e-mail last week.

It's no wonder Goodell didn't want to stroll down memory lane. It's littered with potholes and skid marks, the residual effects of players who went awry. There's one left by Adam "Pacman" Jones, another by Chris Henry, another still by Tank Johnson.

And then there is the mother of them all - Michael Vick.

Just when it looked like "Jones, Pacman" would be the dictionary cross-reference for "Goodell, personal conduct policy," Vick swooped in and set a standard that will be hard to top. Vick trumped Jones, the alleged make-it-rain star of a Las Vegas strip club fight that left a man paralyzed, by burying pit bull carcasses on his property in Virginia. The man capable of eluding every Pro Bowl defensive player in the league couldn't elude the law, and now Vick is an admitted felon staring at a possible lengthy jail sentence, not to mention an indefinite suspension from his high-paying day job.

It has been that kind of year for Goodell. The easy-going redhead turned into a caricature of an NFL shield-toting sheriff with a big star on his chest. Forget judge and jury. Goodell became the police chief, the investigator, the punisher and the executioner all rolled into one. It wasn't by choice, but by necessity, thanks to a list of players who, for whatever reason, couldn't avoid various nefarious acts.

Paul Tagliabue postponed retirement until he could renegotiate the league's television deals and navigate the owners through a new collective-bargaining agreement with the players. Those were two monstrous chores, and Tagliabue said it was his duty as the longtime commissioner to take care of those issues in his final year on the job.

So when Goodell took over a year ago, his slate was relatively clean. There was labor peace. There was a gob of money from the network deals. But, as it turned out, there was player after player after Cincinnati Bengal getting into trouble.

Player conduct became the issue of the year. Although Goodell gets an "incomplete" on the issue - it is way too early to know whether his harsh new conduct policy will dissuade bad behavior - he gets an "A" for effort.

Goodell met with players. He assembled a core group of veterans, including Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Takeo Spikes and former cornerback Troy Vincent (who serves as president of the players association), to serve as advisers. And he backed up rhetoric with action.

Goodell's goal is to "protect the shield," and he sent a strong message that playing in his NFL isn't a right, it's a privilege - a privilege that he can, and will, take away when pressed.

"I think the statement he was trying to put out is being received by all players without players having to say anything," Spikes said last week. "His actions, what he's done to guys who have gotten in trouble to that certain high degree, the punishments he's handed out are real. It's letting us know as players that you are accountable for every action that you do, what you do, but more importantly, you're accountable for the people around you.

"He's definitely swaying the guys who are borderline. If you're willing to take time to even think about [behaving badly] for a second, that means he has your attention, period. And for the guys who just continue to go out and do things at that high-degree level, where you tarnish your name, then those are the ones that really don't deserve to be here anyway, just because they don't care."

Goodell has worked on other issues, although none that has the wattage of personal conduct. He killed NFL Europe after a lengthy run in various incarnations. He canceled a preseason game in China but scheduled a regular-season one later this year in London. He put forth a new policy on concussions and treatment and set up a hotline for players to report teams that force players to return before they're ready.

Goodell is working with the NFLPA on benefits for retired players, a hot issue that, so far at least, has brought negative attention on the union and not the league.

Moving forward, Goodell will have decisions to make. He will have to either reconcile the schism between small- and big-market owners over revenue sharing or face the possibility of a premature end to the collective-bargaining agreement next year. He'll have to figure out the NFL's plan for international growth and whether it's feasible and smart to play games overseas annually.

Of course, Goodell will have to keep talking tough - and acting tougher - against miscreants.

"Accountability, more than anything, is what he's trying to put on our shoulders as individuals," Spikes said. "I think he's addressing a lot of good things. We've had a lot of talks [about] health and safety with the concussions. We talk about the medical with the past players. I think a lot of things are being addressed as they should. I think now we're sitting back waiting for results."

Waiting, and not celebrating anniversaries, at least not yet.

Ashley Fox writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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