Is the NFL’s No-Nonsense Sheriff Turning Soft?
Decades from now, Roger Goodell’s tenure as NFL commissioner will be remembered for his emphasis on player conduct. It’s been a priority of his even in the face of staunch criticism, mostly about heavy-handed punishments for off-field behavior. But the recent two-game suspension of Ray Rice has drawn a different type of condemnation: the oft described “judge, jury and executioner” has been vilified for being too soft an arbiter of punishment.
Now seven years into the league’s personal conduct policy shaped by Goodell, it’s fair to ask whether emphasizing some of the players’ worst behavior is truly helping or hurting the NFL’s image. Although the number of players who have been disciplined represents a tiny fraction of the population, marquee names such as Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick and now Ray Rice have created headlines with their unsavory misdeeds, with additional news cycles covering all aspects about whether their penalties are too severe or too lenient. The result is blanket coverage of negative behavior and its consequences (in Rice’s case, not enough).
The conduct policy was born when Goodell approached former NFLPA head Gene Upshaw after a spate of player arrests (including several Cincinnati Bengals) and received buy-in to legislate a formalized code of conduct. During the 2011 CBA negotiations, however, the NFLPA pressed for an independent process, feeling that Goodell had made himself too powerful. Though willing to cede control to an independent arbitrator regarding drug testing, Goodell has not and will not relinquish his grip on player conduct. It is paramount to him; I saw it up close and personal with his first case.
Not only did the Baltimore Ravens leave Goodell out there alone to take the public hit on disciplining Rice, but the star running back has also been swaddled in support by all levels of the organization.
In 2006, the Packers signed Koren Robinson, a talented wide receiver who had battled alcohol problems and was released by the Vikings following a DUI arrest. With a court date set for the February after the season, we expected to have him at our disposal. Goodell’s predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, was a lawyer, and any league discipline would have been put on hold until after the legal case wended its way through the courts. Or so we thought.
Goodell replaced Tagliabue, and only a couple months on the job, he had all the information he needed; he did not need to wait for legal maneuvering. Koren was suspended for a year. I was incredulous: “What if he is found innocent at trial?” I asked. “What about due process?” I was essentially told that there was a new sheriff in town.
Despite my astonishment at the swiftness of discipline, I was impressed by Goodell’s active follow-up on Koren. He regularly called me for updates, and to get phone numbers so he could reach Koren and set up private face-to-face visits with him. I have heard similar stories about Goodell doing the same with other players such as Adam “Pacman” Jones and Tank Johnson.
For Goodell, the personal conduct policy is very personal.
In the media firestorm that has engulfed Rice’s imbroglio, the backing that he has received from the Ravens organization cannot be overestimated. The NFL is not a democracy, and teams offer different levels of support for players who find themselves in compromising situations. Team senior management must straddle the tricky balance of supporting a player while understanding that they clearly sit on the other side of the table in the labor equation. (Look no further than to Sean Payton’s recent testimony adverse to Jimmy Graham.) Some teams even try to distance themselves from league discipline, understanding they are in a conflicted position.
The Ravens’ support for Rice hasn’t wavered. Rice and his wife, Janay, held a press conference together at the Ravens’ facility; general manager Ozzie Newsome and team president Dick Cass accompanied Rice to his meeting with Goodell; the “we all make mistakes” rationalizations flowed from coach John Harbaugh; and the team’s public relations director, Kevin Byrne, penned an ode to Rice on the team’s website. All of these actions were certainly approved and/or encouraged by owner Steve Bisciotti. It would be naïve to think that this show of support from all levels of the organization did not impact Goodell’s decision-making. Politics and relationships matter in the complex dealings between teams and the league office.
Of course, there was nothing stopping the Ravens from levying their own sanctions against Rice before (or in lockstep with) Goodell’s decision. The Dolphins, for example, did so with Richie Incognito (and there has not been any discipline handed down to Incognito by the commissioner yet). Not only did the Ravens leave Goodell out there alone to take the public hit on disciplining Rice, but the star running back has also been swaddled in support by all levels of the organization.
The Rice penalty appears indicative of some more reserved and patient judgment from Goodell compared to his early years as commissioner. Although it’s unclear the reason for the perceived shift, it could be 1) a nod to the criticism for being overreaching in this area, or 2) a reaction to Tagliabue who, while handling the appeal of the Bounty discipline in 2012 at Goodell’s request, not-so-gently rebuked Goodell for what Tagliabue found excessive punishment of the players involved.
Now that the first shoe has dropped on offseason misbehavior, we expect a wave to come: Colts owner Jim Irsay, who was arrested in March, followed by Aldon Smith (April) and Greg Hardy and T.J. Ward (May).
Ultimately, the public frustration about the personal conduct policy stems from no established, defined criteria for player discipline. Unlike drug and steroid policies, with clearly defined standards and punishments, the conduct policy can appear arbitrary and capricious.
With the Rice suspension, the NFL’s Adolpho Birch responded to accusations of leniency by referring to the lack of discipline from the judicial system, saying proudly, “The discipline that was taken by the NFL is the only discipline that occurred.” However, in 2010 when Ben Roethlisberger’s sexual assault accusations in Georgia did not result in any charges being filed, Goodell still suspended him for six games (with an opportunity to reduce it to four).
I understand the NFL’s reasoning for not having scheduled penalties: every case has different witness testimony, police reports, forensics, investigations, video evidence, and levels of team support, and it is impossible to have fixed discipline. However, more transparency in the process—without releasing sensitive and protected information—would be helpful to 1) provide some background on discipline parameters, 2) give the union, the players and the teams at least an outline of guidelines for punishment, and 3) stem the constant criticism of Goodell regarding player discipline.
Which brings us back to where we started: Goodell is going to legislate player conduct in his own way, whether appearing too harsh or too soft, the criticism be damned. His “role model” vision for players may sound paternalistic or even archaic to some, but it is his vision. He is, after all, the Conduct Commissioner.
I understand Marshawn Lynch’s desire for an upgraded contract, even if he has two years remaining on his existing one. Running backs have the earliest expiration dates of all NFL positions, and Lynch and his agent know how soft the market will be for a 30-year old running back when his current contract expires.
However, Lynch cannot have it both ways. When he negotiated his contract two years ago, he received the big guarantee ($17 million) that comes along with a longer deal. Had he negotiated a more risky two-year contract, he’d have less bonus/guarantee yet would have been the prime target in a weak 2014 free-agent running back market. He opted for the longer deal to lock in the bigger guarantee. As to the common rejoinder, “But the teams can always cut them,” that is a risk of every deal, especially longer ones, and a risk that can also be hedged with a shorter (but less guaranteed) term.
The more interesting question to me in Seattle is not whether the Seahawks give Lynch a new contract (they won’t) but whether they collect the allowable recoupment of signing bonus and fine money allowed by the CBA (I doubt they will).
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As for players with two years remaining who have received extensions, the Cardinals’ new deal with Patrick Peterson is important for reasons beyond the numbers involved. As to those numbers, while they have “stair-step” guarantees (as all big NFL deals seem to have now) from $15.3 million this year to $27.8 million next year, those guarantees also extend into the fourth year of the deal ($47.3 million in 2017), an impressive reach for an NFL contract.
Most interesting is the fact that Peterson became the first 2011 first-rounder to receive a new deal. Armed with four-year deals plus an option year, teams have been cautious and until now avoided long-term investments into these players. Now that the Cardinals (along with the Cowboys, who on Wednesday extended tackle Tyron Smith for eight years) have broken the seal on the 2011 first rounders, agents are watching closely. And yes, I sense a few teams are privately sneering at the Cardinals, because the excuse of “Well, no one’s doing deals on 2011 first-rounders” is now off the table. How soon before players such as Cam Newton, J.J. Watt, A.J. Green, and Julio Jones start asking themselves, “Hmm, I wonder if my team loves me the way the Cardinals love Patrick?” Stay tuned.