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NFL issues another tough suspension

Times Staff Writer

In his 10 months as the NFL’s commissioner, Roger Goodell has put his stamp on the league with the force of a judge banging his gavel.

Goodell on Monday suspended Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson for the first half of the 2007 season. That came little more than a month after Goodell suspended Tennessee cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones for the entire season, and Cincinnati receiver Chris Henry for half of it.

The next decision could be the commissioner’s toughest: what to do about Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick, who is embroiled in a dog-fighting scandal that has attracted the attention of Congress and federal investigators.

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“Roger doesn’t want to be the new sheriff in town, but he’s faced with the reality that that’s the way things are,” Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Assn., said Monday in a telephone interview. “And he has the support of the players.”

This spring, Johnson spent two months in jail on a probation violation on gun-related charges. Last month, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor weapons charge as part of a deal that kept him from serving more time.

In February, Johnson needed a judge’s permission to leave Illinois and participate with the rest of the Bears in Super Bowl XLI. On media day, ringed by at least 100 reporters, he scoffed at the notion he should show remorse.

However, Johnson seemed contrite after a 90-minute meeting with Goodell three weeks ago, telling reporters: “I feel like whatever sanction he imposes, I’m man enough to take it, and I know that once I get back on the field that chapter of my life is closed and I can move on with a sense of closure.”

The league said Johnson’s suspension could be reduced to six games if he undergoes counseling and has no further run-ins with the law.

Although Goodell is seen in some circles as the law-and-order commissioner, the son of a former New York senator isn’t the league’s first leader to take a strong stance on off-the-field transgressions. For instance, in 2004, then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue suspended Baltimore’s Jamal Lewis for two games after the running back pleaded guilty to trying to set up a drug deal four years earlier -- even before he was drafted. And the previous commissioner, Pete Rozelle, handed stars Alex Karras and Paul Hornung full-season suspensions in 1963 for betting on games and associating with gamblers.

The difference, in part, is that Goodell has shown a willingness to suspend players even before they are convicted in the courts, as was the case with Jones.

“I’ve said before that this is about players who are repeatedly finding themselves making mistakes,” the commissioner said last month at a league meeting. “When that happens, you can be in the wrong place once, twice, maybe three times. But after a certain point, you are reflecting very negatively on the National Football League. It’s my job -- not law enforcement’s job -- to protect the National Football League.”

Goodell’s conduct policy applies to team and league employees as well as players. Just last week, the commissioner ruled that NFL clubs may no longer serve alcohol at team functions or on buses or flights, extending the scope of a ban that previously applied to locker rooms.

Upshaw said the league’s image has to be a concern “because that’s what we sell. Even though I know that we’re talking about less than 1% of the players [misbehaving], that doesn’t matter. One percent sounds like 99% to everyone else.”

At the league meetings in March, two of the league’s senior coaches made it clear Goodell had their support.

“I told Commissioner Goodell, ‘Thank you,’ ” Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy said. “I support him 1,000% because I think it needs to be done to make our game better. Not to come down on anybody, not to put any pressure on guys, but just to say, ‘This is what we need for our game to continue to get better.’ ”

Said Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs: “People are tired of getting up in the morning and picking up the paper and reading about somebody in trouble.

“Let’s face it: The only way you’re going to get people’s attention is you’ve got to be strong.”

In terms of player misdeeds, Goodell’s first year has been among the worst in league history. Jones had at least 10 brushes with the law, including his possible involvement in a shooting at a Las Vegas strip club that left a man paralyzed. Henry was one of nine Bengals arrested, some of them multiple times.

Last week, the Associated Press reported that several people who contacted authorities investigating illegal dog fighting at a Virginia property owned by Vick say they can link the Falcons quarterback to the criminal activity.

Asked last month about the Vick case, Goodell said: “We are following it very closely.... I am very concerned about the issues revolving around Michael. He knows that. He pledged to me that he’s going to make changes in his life to address those.”

Last month, the Bears’ Johnson called Goodell “fair,” and those who know the commissioner well echo that sentiment.

He is the son of the late Charles E. Goodell, a congressman from western New York who in 1968 was appointed to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.

The elder Goodell’s most famous political stance was sponsoring legislation to cut off money for the Vietnam War effort. It was a bold position at the time, and one that ultimately cost him his political career.

Son Roger is said to be wired the same way.

“I think it’s in his blood,” said Carmen Policy, a former team president and part-owner of the Cleveland Browns. “When he was the league’s No. 2 man, he was very much attuned to the importance of making it clear to America that this was not only its best and greatest game, but you were dealing with the best and greatest athletes.

“He felt that tarnishing the person off the field tarnishes the game on it.”

sam.farmer@latimes.com


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