By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — It’s a new era in the National Football League.

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Less than four months after an appellate court in Manhattan enhanced his power, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is wielding a mighty sword, caring very little for fairness or due process as he lines up four players in his crosshairs.

The players — Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews, James Harrison and Mike Neal — were accused of receiving PEDs in an Al Jazeera America documentary last December. Though the NFL has completely and totally exonerated Peyton Manning (who was also accused of receiving shipments of HGH and admitted to having those drugs shipped to his home but offered no further public explanation) of any wrongdoing, the league is still pursuing the four active players with great vigor.

Adolpho Birch, the league’s senior VP of labor policy and league affairs, wrote a letter to the NFLPA on Monday which demanded that all four player submit themselves to interrogation by league investigators. If the players refuse, they will be suspended on Aug. 26.

Does the NFL actually have this power? If one man in America accuses a player of taking steroids, does that player now need to accept the fact that he is subject to being investigated? Does the vague language of Article 46 of the collective-bargaining agreement really give Goodell free reign to act however he pleases, all under the guise of “integrity of the game”? Is Roger above the concept of due process and fundamental fairness?

Well, these players and the NFLPA could spend millions in legal fees over the next 18 months if they want to fight it. Yet they’ll ultimately only learn that the answer is yes. A resounding yes.

As two of three Second Circuit judges recently ruled, Roger Goodell is king. It’s in the players’ best interest to simply bow down.

It is, of course, a frightening reality, but it’s been a slow build to this point. It began with the Ray Rice fiasco, when Goodell came as close to losing his job as any head of a money-printing corporation ever could, and it rolled perfectly into the all-out siege in an officials locker room at Gillette Stadium in January 2015. The NFL set its mark, and it did not miss.

Along the way of reaching that goal, the league lied, cheated and manipulated the media at all turns. From the junk science purchased from Exponent, to the newly invented standard of punishment for “general awareness” of activity that was “more probable than not” to have happened, to the farcical appeals process, to the leaking of false PSI data both to the team and to the public without ever correcting the record, to the leaked juicy cell phone tidbit, to the effort to keep the appeal hearing transcript sealed from public view, to the lies about Tom Brady’s testimony (which were then repeated in front of the Second Circuit judges without any reprimand), Roger Goodell rigged the game to win. And he most certainly pulled it off.

Now, he’s emboldened to let Birch write the following to the players who make the league what it is.

“There is no dispute that players are obligated to cooperate with the league’s investigation, as you have repeatedly acknowledged,” Birch wrote, per Tom Pelissero of USA Today. “This obligation includes not only the responsibility to submit to an interview but also the duty to provide meaningful responses to the questions posed. Nor is there a dispute that a failure to cooperate or an attempt to obstruct the investigation may result in discipline, including suspension from play, for conduct detrimental under Article 46 of the CBA and the NFL Player Contract.”

There is no dispute.

That is to say … don’t even bother disputing. We won’t hear it.

It is, truly, a fascinating scenario, and the fact that Manning — who was named in the same report, and again, had is own crisis manager confirm the main detail of the report — has already been wholly cleared only adds to the intrigue.

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It’s interesting because anybody who watches the NFL on a weekly basis can see the physical toll the game takes on the human body. With players bigger, faster and stronger than ever, the hits are that much more severe. It seems at times — and especially late in the season — that the human body simply cannot withstand that level of punishment without some type of assistance, chemical or otherwise. In fact, Buffalo Bills GM Doug Whaley said in plain language in May, “It’s a violent game that I personally don’t think humans are supposed to play.”

He, naturally, issued a damage-control statement shortly thereafter, but we know his honest opinion on the matter.

It’s also fascinating because, really, the NFL rarely if ever goes big-name hunting when it comes to PEDs. The full exoneration of chosen son Manning plays into that. At the same time, with the league feeling public pressure after being outed for not working with the USADA and MLB in pursuit of the accusations made in the Al Jazeera documentary, there is a sense of at least making the appearance of doggedly pursuing the accused.

In the case of Manning, we’ll never know exactly what that pursuit entailed. There was no Wells report type of wrap on the investigation, merely a 129-word statement that said Manning cooperated fully and never did anything wrong. The NFL — the league that spent millions of dollars and many months and still couldn’t rightfully prove anything devious took place in Foxboro in January 2015 — managed to prove a negative.

The league just didn’t care much to tell you how it reached that conclusion.

Now, these players likely won’t face any real punishment. Provided the NFL’s crack team of investigators has been unable to uncover any more evidence aside from Charlie Sly’s secretly recorded words, the players can simply say, “I don’t know Charlie Sly, I’ve never talked to him, I don’t know what he’s talking about,” and they’ll probably get off without any suspension.

But still, subjecting oneself to a line of interrogation from a league that’s proven to operate in deceit in such situations does present risks. It also sets bad precedent.

Just as it would have been horrible precedent for Tom Brady to turn over his private communications to an NFL-paid “independent” investigator, the union has every right to resist the interview requests of these players when the NFL has done nothing to acquire its own intelligence. Surely, these weren’t the first four players in history to ever be accused of taking steroids, yet they now find themselves the subject of an unprecedented amount of pressure to submit to the league’s demands.

However, having a right to do something and having a reasonable chance of winning are two different things. And the union has to know that, after DeflateGate and after the overturning of the Adrian Peterson ruling, it has absolutely no chance.

(From a spectator standpoint, we can all be thankful that one of the accused is James Harrison. If there’s anyone who will fight with every fiber of his being, it’s Harrison, who already offered Goodell to visit his house if he wanted to perform the interview. Oh, and Harrison said he showed up to work on Tuesday and found himself the subject of a “random” drug test. That fight will warrant watching as the next two weeks play out.)

The rules of today’s NFL are clear. Roger Goodell can act however he sees fit, he can violate all sorts of basic standards of fairness and decency, and he can do it all in the name of “integrity” of the game. High courts in this great country have identified him as being uniquely qualified to make these judgements, and this latest bit of news shows that he will happily put this newfound sense of power to use.

Dark days lie ahead for any NFL player who, through no fault of his own, finds himself in Roger Goodell’s crosshairs. The only options are to submit and kiss the ring or feel the commissioner’s wrath.

This is football in the modern age.

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You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.