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Trial by fire

Goodell couldn't have predicted first-year challenges

Posted: Monday July 30, 2007 9:30AM; Updated: Monday July 30, 2007 1:23PM
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Roger Goodell has faced many difficult decisions in his first year as NFL commissioner.
Roger Goodell has faced many difficult decisions in his first year as NFL commissioner.
Al Messerschmidt/Wireimage.com
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NEW YORK -- As Roger Goodell nears his one-year anniversary as NFL commissioner, he's bugged that some members of the media describe him as a hanging judge who makes knee-jerk reactions and comes down hard on repeat offenders. "I don't like that,'' Goodell told SI.com in a wide-ranging, 60-minute interview in his Park Avenue office last Thursday. "I don't think I've been heavy-handed. 'Hanging judge' implies to me that someone has not been thoughtful or responsible in his actions, and I don't believe that's the case.''

The irony of Goodell's first year is the hot-button issue he faces today -- the Michael Vick dogfighting nightmare -- wasn't even on his radar when he was appointed to succeed Paul Tagliabue last Aug. 8. That's the thing about running any big business, the big issues are often a moving target.

I would argue Goodell has been at his best when the target is moving the fastest. The Vick case is likely a better example of how Goodell has handled player discipline than the suspensions handed to Pacman Jones, Chris Henry and Tank Johnson for violating the league's personal conduct policy. Jones' 16-game suspension, Henry's eight and Johnson's six weren't tough calls. The three players had 22 combined arrests or run-ins with the law. The Vick call was tougher.

When Falcons owner Arthur Blank wanted to suspend Vick for four weeks last Monday, after he'd been indicted by a federal grand jury for involvement in dogfighting, Goodell understood exactly where he was coming from. There's a good chance Vick misled both men to their face by telling them he had nothing to do with dogfighting and next-to-nothing to do with the home where it allegedly took place in Virginia. That, plus the immense public pressure to discipline Vick, were spurring Blank's thinking. But Goodell, worried that the Vick case could end up like the Duke lacrosse case (with the exoneration of all defendants), told Blank he was taking over the discipline in this case, thus the indefinite suspension, with pay, while the league reviews the indictment.

Goodell told me the league has hired the former U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Eric Holder, to investigate whether Vick has violated the league's personal conduct policy. Holder, who helped write the policy, will confirm for the league whether Vick has done anything to circumvent the policy, such as illegal gambling, knowingly lying to league officials about his involvement in dogfighting or his presence as the Virginia home when dogfighting was occurring. "If he lied to me that there was never any dogfighting going on at his property ... then that's a violation of the policy,'' Goodell said.

Goodell, 48, has been hands-on around the NFL in more ways than one. He moves from office to office at league headquarters, asking personal questions to vice presidents and cafeteria cashiers. And last week, at the NFL's annual company outing at Giants Stadium, he was flagged for defensive pass interference in a pickup game on the stadium's FieldTurf, tweaking a leg muscle in the process. "There was no pass interference,'' he scoffed to director of officiating Mike Pereira in the office the next day.

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