Let me start by saying that I have been a huge supporter of Roger Goodell. I lauded the Personal Conduct Policy when it was announced as I saw it as the future of sports leagues. I believed the league taking responsibility for player discipline was a good thing and that it provided the much needed stopgap between the punishments of the legal system and the impact of player behavior on the game. It might still be; but with the haphazard management of discipline under the PCP by Goodell, it’s hard to see it as anything but a colossal failure. The PCP should not be thrown out with the bath water that is Roger Goodell, but his recent actions make it seem like there is no choice but to hit reset on all of this.
What the hell is Goodell doing?
We’ll talk about the Patriots situation in a moment, but first we need to look at the NFL discipline construct. Specifically, how it came to rest squarely on Goodell’s shoulders. And further, how he has mismanaged discipline from the start.
When Goodell took over for Paul Tagliabue as NFL commissioner in September 2006, he oversaw the vote on new bylaws for the league. This new policy named all players as ambassadors of the NFL and made the entirety of their behavior subject to supervision by the NFL league office–we will file that under “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
This policy was an offshoot of the collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners. Not surprisingly, the PCP was introduced by the owners as the price of conceding to salary and other monetary demands from the NFLPA. Additionally, the owners appointed the commissioner’s office as the originator of all investigation, discipline, and arbitration of appeals. The owners created a sole judge, jury, and executioner–not surprising, they had just elected him, they had very high opinions on his ability to do the job.
This concentration of power made sense from an ease of implementation and, in theory, efficiency. And it didn’t take long for Goodell to begin doling out suspensions for off-field acts that were “detrimental to the league.” Below are some of his suspensions worth noting, courtesy of Wikipedia. (Length in games in parentheses)
- October 2006: Chris Henry suspended for alleged unlawful firearm possession (2)
- November 2006: Ricky Manning suspended for domestic violence (1)
- May 2007: Pac-Man Jones suspended for attacking a stripper (16)
- June 2007: Tank Johnson suspended for alleged unlawful possession of firearms and violating probation (8)
- July 2007: Michael Vick suspended for involvement in dog fighting (32)
- December 2008: Plaxico Burress suspended for shooting self in leg with firearm (4)
- August 2009: Donte Stallworth suspended for killing pedestrian while driving under the influence (16)
- April 2010: Ben Roethlisberger suspended for allegations of rape against him (6, reduced to 4)
- August 2011: Terrelle Pryor suspended due to receiving improper benefits from Ohio State while enrolled (5)
- May 2012: Saints players suspended for involvement in bounty program; Vilma (16); Hargrove (8); Smith (4); Fujita (3)
- July 2014: Ray Rice suspended for domestic assault (2)
- September 2014: Josh Brent convicted of Manslaughter (10 games)
- April 2015: Greg Hardy charged with domestic abuse (10)
- May 2015: Tom Brady involved in manipulation of air pressure in footballs (4)
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is inclusive of major newsworthy punishments and has several punishments included for illustration. Again, we’ll kick the Brady can down the road once more. Let’s look at the issue with Goodell’s punishments leading up to the deflation scandal.
Goodell set a poor precedent from the outset. Chris Henry allegedly had firearms he wasn’t supposed to have, so he was suspended two games. A month later, Ricky Manning was alleged to have committed domestic violence, so he was suspended one game. Those two suspensions right there should be enough to peg Goodell as arbitrary in his discipline, but we will press on.
We will skip Vick for now, and move to Burress. He shot himself in the leg with a gun he wasn’t legally allowed to have, so Goodell suspended him four games. Meaning that shooting yourself by accidental discharge was much worse than allegedly beating up another human being and arguably twice as bad as owning an illegal gun to begin with–that second part actually holds up. What’s omitted is that once Burress was convicted, Goodell suspended him again for the duration of his prison term–which seems very “neener neener” to me. The league suspended him again, I’m sure, to duck paying a jailbird.
Let’s look now at Donte Stallworth who was under the influence of alcohol when he killed a man with his car–here’s where we’ll get back to Vick. Stallworth was suspended for an entire season for killing another person. Meanwhile, Goodell suspended Michael Vick years before for two entire seasons for dogfighting. So, if you’re keeping score, kill a person, you’re out a year; run a betting ring where dogs kill each other, two years. Now, don’t read too much into this, dogfighting is deplorable and I think Vick is a disgusting human being for what he did. But, it is inconsistent for a disciplinary code to weight it more than the taking of another human life. The reason Goodell suspended Vick longer than Stallworth was directly related to the amount of negative press the league received as a result of the story breaking, not because Goodell gives more of a damn about dogs than people.
Contrasting Vick and Stallworth proves that the disciplinary standard for the PCP is weighed less upon the actual behavior of the player, and more on the public’s reaction. The commissioner’s punishment is literally swayed by the court of public opinion–and that precedent has be constantly reinforced throughout Goodell’s tenure.
Now, let’s move to Brady. I covered it on my SplinterCast last week. His violation is certainly a punishable offense; manipulating game equipment for advantage is cheating. However, the four game suspension serves to punish Brady more for not cooperating with the investigation, and less for his actual violation. So, Goodell, with his punishment of the Patriots and Brady, has sent the message that lying to him and cheating is as bad as shooting yourself in the leg with an illegal firearm.
Goodell is in a tailspin. Furthermore, I don’t buy the rhetoric from some columnists who say we shoudn’t compare suspensions as they are two distinct instances–much has been made of the initial Ray Rice suspension of two games contrasted to Brady’s four. That assertion is fair; however, since the NFL created this PCP, they created a de facto legal system. And, like it or not, legal systems rest on precedent. So, while the argument holds that we shouldn’t compare punishments, it’s also true that the system should be consistent. It just isn’t.
Moreover, Roger Goodell is stubborn. The foregoing discussed the collective bargaining agreement that gives him power to discipline; it also grants him the power to appoint an arbitrator for all appeals. He can, and always seems to, appoint himself as the appellate judge. This prevents any semblance of a fair appeal. This alone should prove that the NFL needs a disciplinary committee with player representation. King Goodell must be deposed.
As if Goodell wasn’t already radioactive, now he is attempting to broker a closed-door, back room deal with the Patriots regarding the overly punitive nature of the deflation scandal sanctions. This reeks of an attempt to save his job by pandering to the most powerful owner in football, Robert Kraft.
Before, Goodell was just bad at his job, but he was equally bad and equally nonsensical and arbitrary. Now, if a deal is brokered with New England that reduces suspensions and penalties, then his office is no longer evenhanded in its ineptitude. And, the league owners should run him out of Dodge. By showing favor, the commissioner’s office disenfranchises all players and most owners. This type of cronyism is reminiscent of third world dictators, and less a billion dollar industry. The commissioner has long had the reputation of being a disinterested administrator, now it is viewed in a darker light as a malevolent authoritarian regime to be feared, not trusted. In overseeing this shift in perception, Goodell has done grave harm to the powers of the commissioner and the damage, if Goodell continues, may reach the point of being irreparable.
Goodell has got to go.
If he’s not careful, he’ll take the entirety of the Personal Conduct Policy with him.