It's one thing for fans and journalists to hack away at the NFL's shield, it's another to have those who rely on it for protection to take a few whacks.
And yet, in a new profile of embattled commissioner Roger Goodell's reign, GQ finds several folks willing to do just that – including the man who once wielded the shield, Goodell's predecessor Paul Tagliabue.
The former commish takes Goodell to task for his myopic focus on the league's financial well being, especially in a year when its image has been tarnished by myriad off-field issues and its tone-deaf response to them. And when taken within the larger context of the NFL's ongoing – and , some would say, hypocritical – dealings with player safety, traumatic brain injuries and the health of former pros, Tagliabue can understand why Goodell's attention to the bottom line (above all else) is problematic, both within the league offices and the world at-large.
"If they see you making decisions only in economic terms, they start to understand that and question what you're all about," he said. "There's a huge intangible value in peace. There's a huge intangible value in allies."
Tagliabue served as NFL commissioner from 1989-2006, and was brought in by Goodell to conduct an independent appeals hearing following the infamous "Bountygate" scandal, when Goodell levied harsh penalties on New Orleans Saints players, coaches and front-office personnel for their involvement in an alleged bounty program that rewarded big hits. In December 2012, Tagliabue published a 22-page decision that vacated those punishments, and drove a deep wedge between the two former associates.
"I talked to him after I issued the bounty decision. I explained I was doing it and why. He didn't think I would vacate all the discipline," Tagliabue said. "We haven't talked much since I left. It's been his decision. 'Bountygate' didn't help."
In addition to his focus on finance and confrontational relationship with former and current NFL players, it's Goodell's preferential treatment of team owners – some more than others – that has put him at odds with many within the game. While he came down with swift justice against the Saints (a move that reportedly so angered New Orleans owner Tom Benson he resigned from three league committees in 2013), Goodell has been slow to react to the ongoing "Deflategate" issue currently plaguing the Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots. Some see that as a direct result of his friendship with Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a member of Goodell's so-called "inner circle."
"Commissioners work for owners, and that shouldn't come as a shock to fans because it doesn't come as a shock to the players," DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, tells GQ. "We are asked to be partners when it is convenient and – more frequently – told what to do when it is not. Owners ignored players when our union was founded, and our history has been one of forcing them to recognize players' rights. That paradigm will never stop."