When it comes to standing up to the NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison has a bit of a history.
Calling his comments aimed at NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in a 2012 Men’s Journal article "critical" would be like candy-coating a .50-caliber bullet. In that piece, he was quoted calling Goodell "a crook and a puppet," and stated in far more creative terms than I care to reprint here that, if Goodell was on fire, he wouldn’t even use the most natural means at his disposal to douse the flames.
Those comments were in response to Goodell’s decisions in 2010 and 2011 to deem once-legal hits as worthy of fines and suspensions. Those changes have made the game safer, to be sure, but it seemed that, overnight, Harrison had become Goodell’s poster boy for his sudden crusade against what he deemed "dirty" hits.
The feud sat at a low simmer for several years after that, with Harrison only collecting the occasional personal foul — some for hits that admittedly crossed the newly drawn lines, and some for hits that probably even made the recipient of Harrison’s blows consider protesting the flag.
But, the man who has embodied the blue-collar work ethic and grit that even the most white-collar ‘Burgher will adamantly claim accurately represents the city that lies at the confluence of the Ohio, Monongahelia and Allegheny rivers recently found himself staring down the double barrels of a league demand that Harrison and others submit to an interview regarding now-retracted allegations that they received performance enhancing drugs.
It’s clear it was Goodell on the aiming end of that gun’s sights. However, of all the men who are currently still under investigation — perhaps "witch hunt" is a better name for it at this point — Harrison may have had the strongest leg to stand on in his refusal to accede to the demands of the league. In the end, it didn’t matter — not because he gave in to the demand, but because it was a battle he was never going to win in the first place.
When the league and the players negotiated their most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) in 2011, one team voted against it: the Pittsburgh Steelers. The reasoning was simple: they felt it gave the Office of the Commissioner — and, by simple extrapolation, Goodell — too much power in disciplinary matters. We saw that in Goodell’s dealings with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, when the CBA allowed Goodell to not only hand out the initial discipline, but also to be the one to hear the appeal. Not a single person in their right mind would have ever expected Goodell’s response to the appeal to have been, "perhaps I was wrong." He didn’t disappoint.
Now, as then, the league has chosen to continue an investigation that has morphed into something else entirely. With Brady, it was no longer a question of deflated footballs. Rather, it was that Goodell felt Brady hadn’t been fully cooperative in the investigation. To Goodell’s credit, even the United States federal court system agreed that Goodell had the right to hand down that punishment, but it may well have been the case that their ruling was merely due to a strict reading of the CBA rather than agreement with the punishment itself.
But in this case, the investigation hinges on two things: the word of the players, and secretly recorded testimony that those players had used PEDs — testimony that was retracted days later. At this point, it’s anyone guess as to what the NFL would do with the players’ impending testimonies, considering it would be asinine for any of them to cop to anything for which the league presumably has zero evidence. With the power Goodell wields, it matters little what the players say, though. He could read between the lines, real or imagined, and find whatever it is he chooses to seek. He literally has that much power under the current agreement.
If you doubt that, don’t forget that there is ample precedent, and it can be found adjacent to the Harrison chapter in the Steelers’ annals of history. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended in 2010 for "conduct detrimental to the league" — despite the fact that police investigations into alleged sexual assault resulted in no investigation being pursued. Even after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation deemed that there was insufficient evidence to pursue a case, Goodell still found cause to suspend a player for nothing more than allegations. And that was before the current CBA gave him even broader powers.
Given that precedent, Harrison, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and Mike Neal should all be very concerned about the outcome of these interviews -- because it’s clear that whatever the players may say behind closed doors just might not matter at all. The threat of suspension if a player had steadfastly refused to be interviewed could have easily be seen as a smokescreen to help maintain the image of the league. After all, Goodell is on record as saying that his primary job is protecting "the shield". Threatening the players for failure to cooperate might have given legitimacy to the league’s process in the eyes of the public, no matter how farcical that process may prove to be.
The Steelers, though, know better. Goodell has made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t need legal charges, prior precedent or even evidence to hand out his rogue brand of discipline. He needs nothing more than an obvious threat and someone to write a press release, and he can hand down whatever punishment he chooses, for whatever violation he can invent that day.
Even in 2011, the Steelers knew this day would come. Maybe, when it comes time to negotiate the next CBA, the rest of the league will listen.