The Cracked Shield: The NFL Players' Open Revolt Against Roger Goodell

After years of silence, the league's stars are speaking out. And the commissioner is powerless to stop them

St. Louis Rams Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Chris Givens and Kenny Britt before Sunday's game. Credit: L.G. Patterson/Corbis

In the NFL, they call it "Protecting the Shield." It's commissioner Roger Goodell's term for projecting an image for the league – all the way down to waving the U.S. flag as a PR prop – and protecting it at all costs. It sounds noble. And all decisions, words and thoughts come from the top.

So what is the players' role? They are shielded from reality. They are to shut up, run fast, hit hard and have all the human characteristics of that faceless, creepy Fox robot-thing.

That's why this is the moment the NFL has feared for years. Current and former players, who have been trained and coerced into saying nothing important, are suddenly making big statements. It is a wide spectrum of meaningful and moral sentiments, some compelling, others what you'd expect from a robot-thing.

At this very moment, the NFL is at its moral breaking point.

In St. Louis this past Sunday, five players walked onto the field with their hands up and palms forward – the "Don't shoot'' gesture – to protest the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri. The police demanded an apology from the team and then announced they had gotten one. Then a team official said he hadn't meant to apologize.

See? The NFL is not built for this.

I love what those St. Louis players did, by the way. Agree with them or not, they stood up for something they believed in. The shield had deflected reality long enough.

So in some odd way, that makes me love the moronic and dangerous speeches of former players Tom Jackson and Cris Carter on ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown this past weekend. They tried to turn Ray Rice, whose suspension for sucker-punching his fiancée (now wife) was overturned by an arbitrator last week, into a victim.

I didn't make that up.

"He lost his job, he lost millions of dollars, he became the face of domestic violence,'' Jackson said, adding that this was a one-time assault. "So I think if there has ever been a guy who deserves a second chance, I believe that it is him.''

Carter said Rice should be playing now and moving on with his life, and he could be a great example to the NFL. I didn't make that up either.

Meanwhile, on TV, we have a new series of PSAs for the No More campaign, where NFL players sit quietly as a way of making a loud statement against domestic violence. And when Adrian Peterson was kicked out for using a switch on his son, Carter powerfully spoke up on air against violence against kids, saying even his own mother was wrong in how she brought him up.

In Seattle, players Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin used a cardboard cutout of Baldwin as a prop, turning a press conference into a skit protesting commissioner Roger Goodell, protector of the shield. Goodell fined teammate Marshawn Lynch for not talking to the media. So Sherman and Baldwin (and the cutout of Baldwin) decided to talk – about the league's hypocrisy on a variety of issues, including alcohol and concussions.

There is no shielding the players anymore.

This breakdown was inevitable. The message had been overly controlled and aggressively managed. There was no room to breathe. From watching the way the shield has been packaged, you'd think the NFL is one of the branches of our Armed Forces. It is certainly not an organization that would stand against the actions of the Ferguson police.

These players are not merely challenging Goodell's authority; they're rebelling against it, seemingly daring him to act. That has been the undercurrent throughout. In Seattle, Sherman told a room of reporters "It seems like we're in a league where they say 'Players, please don't endorse alcohol, no DUIs please.' But yet a beer sponsor is their biggest sponsor.''

And both he and Baldwin complained about Thursday night games in a time when Goodell publicly tries to protect players from concussions: "Two games in five days,'' Sherman said. "It doesn't seem like you care about players' safety.''

They were right on both points. But their issue isn't the points. It's Goodell. They are tired of the moral police judging them. They want to be judged on the basis of their own actions.

When taking a moral stand, you need to stay focused. That's where Jackson and Carter went wrong Sunday. They were so focused on Goodell that they lost track of what Rice had done. Jackson pointed out that the arbitrator said Rice hadn't been dishonest with Goodell, as the commissioner had claimed when the TMZ video came out and he changed the suspension from two games to indefinite. Jackson said that if the arbitrator ruled that Rice was not lying, "Then what? What is the other side of that comment?''

The other side would be that Goodell was lying.

Look, Goodell was some combination of mean-spirited and incompetent in his handling of the Rice case. But that's no excuse for taking up Rice as a cause. It's not so simple as determining who the bad guy is. They both are.

Yet Carter said, "Out of all the players that we have seen that have been involved with domestic violence, or any other off-the-field issues this year, Ray Rice is one of the stand-up guys who has made amends...He has fessed up to it.''

Well, the video fessed up for him. And Rice allowed Janay to sit there and publicly apologize for her role in it.

"It was the worst day of his life that was caught on video,'' Carter said. "He has suffered a tremendous penalty.''

Rice was monstrous enough to deck his fiancée and famous enough to become a poster child for it. This isn't the time to put the face of domestic violence back on the field to be cheered by fans. Jackson and Carter should see that. So the moral breaking point will come with good and bad. It will be chaos. That's to be expected. These players aren't robot-things. They're people.