Once again, the NFL has a smelly mess on its hands, and once again, it's because of commissioner Roger Goodell and his massive ego.
Here we are on the eve of another NFL season. We should be talking about football returning to L.A. and the greatness of Cam Newton. Instead we're talking again about Goodell's arrogant, willy-nilly brand of spin-the-wheel justice.
What else is new? Goodell can't suspend anyone without making it a federal case. Literally.
Ray Rice. Bountygate. Deflategate. Spygate. Adrian Peterson. Has he ever gotten one right? Goodell makes $34 million a year and still would louse up a one-band parade.
Here's the latest. The NFL is threatening to suspend four players — Pittsburgh's James Harrison, Green Bay's Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers, and free agent Mike Neal — if they don't agree to be interviewed by the league about a report that linked them to performance-enhancing drugs.
That link? Allegations in a television report by the Al-Jazeera America network made by a guy who used to work as an intern at an antiaging clinic. That guy, by the way, almost immediately recanted his claims. Oh, and the report was nine months ago.
There you have it. That's it. As far as we know — and as far as the players know — that's all the league has, a flimsy report based on the words of a man who has backed away from those words.
The players haven't failed a drug test. No one has seen them using PEDs. They haven't been found to have PEDs in their possession.
When the story came out in December, Peyton Manning's name was the most prominent in it. And the link between Manning and PEDs appeared stronger than the links made to the other players. Manning vehemently denied he ever had used PEDs, and after winning the Super Bowl with the Broncos and announcing his retirement, he cooperated with the league.
Who knows how that conversation went, but it took almost no time for the league to announce that Manning was off the hook. So, you then ask, why don't the other players simply sit down with the NFL like Manning did? If they have nothing to hide, why not cooperate and be done with it?
That's not the point.
You can't have the NFL calling players into the principal's office every time someone makes an allegation. It's like a cop pulling over a driver just because someone might have seen him speeding, but maybe not.
Here, the league is saying that the punishment for not talking is the same as that for taking PEDs. The league is assuming silence is an admission of guilt. No brand of honorable justice would allow for that kind of thinking.
If I were Harrison, Matthew, Peppers or Neal, there is no way I would agree to meet with anyone from the league based on such evidence. It would be a dangerous precedent that the players absolutely cannot set. If they give in to this, where would the threshold be for not talking ever?
Throw in the league's wobbly history with discipline, its desire to be right rather than fair, and its assumption that everyone is guilty until proven innocent, why would the players say anything to the league?
In other words: Would you trust Goodell?
You could argue that the NFL is not a democracy bound by the Constitution, that players don't have Fifth Amendment rights in its dealings. The NFL is run by a collective bargaining agreement, and the CBA, agreed to by the players, gives Goodell the right to boss around everyone and rule the league like a dictator.
But just because Goodell has such power doesn't mean he has to use it. He doesn't always have to flex his muscles. Some occasions call for common sense, smart business and prudent restraint.
Goodell is incapable of such things. His ego is too large, his hunger for power too great. Because of that, there is a mounting, alarming distrust between the league and its players that almost certainly will lead to an ugly showdown when the CBA expires in 2020. Goodell's judge-jury-and-hangman approach has severely damaged the league's vital relationship with players needed for long-term business success.
Of course, none of this should surprise us based on how Goodell railroaded Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in Deflategate. Come to think of it, could the aftershocks of that case be motivating Goodell in this one? Brady didn't cooperate with the league, and now Goodell, backed into a corner because of his four-game suspension of Brady and the subsequent court case, is going to make sure Harrison, Matthew, Peppers and Neal join Brady in the clink for stiff-arming the league's investigations.
This isn't Goodell's attempt to rid the NFL of PEDs. It's his attempt to remind the players of who's in charge.
Goodell should realize how silly this is, that he has no good reason to make Harrison, Matthew, Peppers and Neal talk. He should back down from this fight because it's the fair thing to do. It's the smart thing to do. It's the right thing to do.
Then again, why should we expect Goodell to ever be fair, smart and right?