A Former Player Responds To Roger Goodell's Open Letter

What a buzzkill. On the eve of the playoffs, just when fans' excitement in the sport is cresting, Roger Goodell tripped on his shoestrings again, puked all over his keyboard, and then hit "send."

His letter to the fans in a nutshell: greedy players and broke owners. The NFL needs more money (more even than the many billions of dollars the new Monday Night Football TV contract will provide), and the athletes who populate the league need less. It's the same tune he's been practicing, but now sung with a bullhorn. He wants the fans to keep in mind, as they watch the playoffs, that the athletes on their televisions are overpaid hooligans whose bodies are not their own properties and thus shall have no say in the direction of the league as a whole.

Five years into his tenure, the players are realizing what they have in Roger Goodell. At first, it was hard to tell. He had a refined message and promised the players that he wouldn't change a thing, unless it was deemed necessary, in the name of progress. Players are always skeptical of the power structure in the NFL — coaches, owners, or, in this case, the commissioner. There is always a prevailing "us against them" feeling. Players know that loyalty and honesty are scarce at their level, but I think for the most part, the belief endured that Goodell would respect the sacrifice of the players and keep the ship steady.

But now there's a storm coming, and the skipper is drunk at the wheel. The first sign of this came after a few well-publicized player indiscretions. Goodell started beating his chest at the rest of us. We will not tolerate this. We will not tolerate that. Here is a video about it. Here is a pamphlet about it. Here is another pamphlet (he loves pamphlets). We'll be watching you. Here I am talking about it on television. Here I am again! How's my hair?

Goodell's failure to understand how this would be received by players has proved to be a recurring theme in his tenure. His vaunted code of conduct policy, his public flogging of the NFL's relatively few troublemakers, and his repeated cries for a "culture change," all seen by him as progress, were taken in the locker room as the opposite. One can only assume that a call for a "culture change" means that Goodell is unhappy with the current culture, or more to the point, with the players themselves. He is openly questioning their morals. Understanding that the majority of the players in the NFL are young black men, and he is representing the interests of old, rich, white owners, Goodell has needlessly widened the cultural rift between the players and the displeased owners who might wish their players weren't quite so black. That's not progress.

It also doesn't help that, in the eyes of the players, Goodell couldn't find his balls when he was in the same room with Brett Favre and a bagful of evidence. Roger could have given him a fitting retirement party, but he punked out.

Meanwhile, he had no problems locating his nuts when began doling out fines for what he perceived as overly vicious hits. But the way it looks in the locker room, the fines are a function of media attention and the marketability of the player getting hit. And if you accidentally graze the head of a quarterback, it's your ass. (And here we thought that's what helmets were for.) This is when Goodell's PR train permanently went off the rails. Players practice at full speed every week. They smack heads and then go watch it on film. They know everyone is getting hit in the head. The laughably inconsistent enforcement of the head-shot rule makes it clear to the players, or at least the vast majority of them: your brains are expendable.

And now its just getting silly. On the heels of an impassioned plea for safer play, he's aggressively pushing an 18-game season.

I know he's in a negotiation here, but don't put Icy Hot in my jockstrap and ask me why my balls itch. And the manner in which he is selling the longer season to the public insults the intelligence of the players even more. He says that it won't add a single game. It's still a 20-game format. Enough with the 20-game argument. Every player knows that during the four combined preseason games, the starters barely play a total four quarters, if that.

Preseason games are used to evaluate the bubble players who are fighting to make the team. My career owed itself, in no small part, to those preseason games. While the starters rested and prepared for the regular season, I had a chance to prove that I belonged. Take away two of them, and that chance is diminished.

Add two regular-season games, and careers will be shorter and life-changing injuries more frequent. As the body breaks down late in the season, the athlete's strength wanes and the difference between a routine play and a crippling injury gets smaller and smaller. But the pressure to perform never wanes, so the player must soldier on, knowing that if he can't go, someone else will. Players are reminded of that fact almost daily, and no one minces words. The threat of being replaced is a constant. Whether it is Game 2 or Game 18, you ignore the pain. The commissioner is sadly mistaken if he believes otherwise.

A team's training room at the end of the season is a battlefield scene: people lying on tables, things clamped to them, moaning in pain. Injured reserve players stack up as the season drags on. New players are signed to replace them, then suffer the same fate. Snap, crackle, pop. The players who can't practice during the week but end up playing anyway are injured. They shouldn't play; that's why they can't practice. But they get shot up on game day, or they don't, and they play anyway. Their adrenaline is through the roof and the drugs work, so they don't feel the pain that's telling them to stop. Fucking stop! But they don't heed the warnings, no one does, because playing with severe pain is an institutional reality that Goodell is either blind to or too dehumanized to care about. Regardless, the damage is done. More games, more damage.

Now, the picture of Goodell is clear: He is a guy eager to put his stamp on the league; he doesn't care what he is stamping just so long as it has his name on it. Problem is, he is losing the players, one PR gaffe at a time. The NFL is doing just fine on its own. It doesn't need Roger Goodell to be its pimp. Step out of the spotlight, Roger. It's not your show.

A Former Player Responds To Roger Goodell's Open Letter

Nate Jackson played tight end for the Denver Broncos from 2003 to 2008. His writing has also appeared in Slate and The New York Times.