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May 30, 2014

Scandals, lawsuits could sink NFL commissioner

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been taking a little heat since it was reported that he’s pulling down a cool $44 million a year.

That seems like a lot of money for attending football games. But after reviewing his work schedule and assessing the lawsuits and problems he faces, he probably earns every penny.

The NFL is the country’s greatest sports empire. It prints money. It’s also the subject of a tidal wave of litigation and public relations nightmares. Here’s a sampling:

The most recent legal case was filed by a group of former players who charge they were knowingly and illegally fed painkillers and anti-inflammatories to keep them on the field without their team disclosing the long-term dangers associated with the practice.

This is another example of both sides agreeing that, “If you ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies.” Players play because that’s what they’re taught to do. From the first time they put on pads, they are reminded that playing football means playing with pain. No excuses, no exceptions.

It’s also a job, and the lure of big money means they do what they must to keep the checks coming. Through their lawyers, some say they didn’t understand when they took the many injections and pain-numbing medications what a big price they’d pay later.

Of course, blaming players because they failed to protect themselves from themselves isn’t a winning defense. Who knows, there might not be a winning defense for the NFL. Nevertheless, it’s a legal matter that’s likely to draw plenty of attention and finger-pointing before it’s resolved.

Another troubling lawsuit doesn’t even involve the hard-hitting behemoths that give the NFL its reputation as a violent, physical game. This comes from the lasses who roam the sidelines displaying beautiful smiles and skimpy outfits.

This case, brought against about a half-dozen teams, cites violations of labor laws. In exchange for being shown on television and dancing across the field doing cheers during timeouts, cheerleaders receive a few dollars an hour – less than minimum wage. That’s if they follow all the other rigid rules and regulations set for cheerleaders.

Settling this matter wouldn’t cost NFL team owners much money, but even bringing it forward and exposing a tawdry practice is a black eye that besmirches the league’s  All-American image.

An examination of how cheerleaders are treated and how they are used to promote pro football could led to claims of sexual harassment. That’s a fight the NFL might be hard-pressed to win - and certainly doesn’t want.

It seems the NFL needs to admit its errors and use a little common  sense.

Another major case still hanging over the NFL is the class-action concussion lawsuit brought by about 4,500 former NFL players. The sides reached a $765 million settlement last summer, but a federal judge has hesitated in certifying the agreement.

The original suit claimed the NFL covered up known risks of concussions and head trauma associated with playing pro football. The question the judge is weighing - and one that must leave Goodell worried - is whether the settlement, although large, was fair. It compensates injured players but is it enough to provide care and treatment for the rest of their lives?

There are other serious legal actions that reflect poorly on the league, even if the NFL is not be a defendant.

Hazing and bullying claims brought by Miami Dolphins lineman Jonathan Martin against a teammate have been embarrassing, if not legally actionable. Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was charged with assaulting his fiancé in an Atlantic City hotel. The Redskins' nickname controversy won’t go away. Then there have been the deeply disturbing allegations - including first-degree murder charges - against former New England star receiver Aaron Hernandez.

If the commissioner can correct those problems, he earns all of his financial rewards.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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