David Bergman for Sports Illustrated
David Bergman for Sports Illustrated

Is the NFL’s No-Nonsense Sheriff Turning Soft?

Roger Goodell has long ruled with an iron fist, but following Ray Rice’s mere two-game ban, the so-called ‘judge, jury and executioner’ is catching heat for being too lenient. Which begs another question: Why aren’t people up in arms about the Ravens doing nothing?

By
Andrew Brandt
· More from Andrew·

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.

New Sheriff

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.

Ravens’ Support

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.

ray-rice-janay-rice-360The 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).

More Transparency?

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.

Brandt’s Rants

For the moment, Marshawn Lynch is actually holding out. It’ll likely do him no good. (Rod Mar for The MMQB)
For the moment, Marshawn Lynch is actually holding out. It’ll likely do him no good. (Rod Mar for The MMQB)

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).

* * *

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.

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28 comments
Rickapolis
Rickapolis

The Ravens failed miserably in all this. They had the chance to take  a meaningful stand against domestic violence, and instead, they have enabled it. We're all used to Goodell's failures of leadership, but the team needed to step up here, And they chose to do NOTHING. Pathetic. I am no longer a Ravens fan.  

And for those that say, 'We don't know what happened in that elevator', well, yes we do. Ray Rice knocked out his fiancé. That's what happened. She entered walking on her two feet and came out dragged by her feet. So we DO know what happened. Another failure of the NFL, and the list of such is getting longer every week or so. 

R-Lupin
R-Lupin

Ray Rice simply refused to explain what transpired in that elevator.  He needs to clear that up.

MoeLarryAndJesus
MoeLarryAndJesus

And, of course, Roger Goodell is a Republican.  It's not like he values women much, anyway.

HoppinBill
HoppinBill

In a case like this, I'm not sure how much more transparency there could be or should be.  This is two people's private lives that we're talking about.  They should be the ones who get to decide what level of information should be released, not the commissioner or the headline mongering press.  At most, I think the appropriate response from the commissioner's office should be something along the lines of "We have reviewed all of the evidence and taken what we feel are the appropriate actions".

The public should recognize that the league is a business not a court of law.  The punishments meted out by the league are not governed by law, but guided by the principles of the business and they are in addition to any punishment that may come from the legal system and they are not meant exclusively to be the punishment that the player or executive faces.  They are meant also to be deterrent to future behavior by the player involved and other players who find themselves faced with similar decisions/situations. 

Ray Rice entered an intervention program and he and his wife are in counseling and he will not likely face prosecution in court.  If it were any of us, that is all that would have happened.  A couple missed days of work, maybe.  Ray however, faces an additional suspension without pay, amounting to a little more than $500k in additional punishment.  Should it be more?  I don't know.  You don't know.  None of us have enough information to make that decision for the NFL. 

Bernard4195
Bernard4195

The Ravens are doing nothing because they've always coveted thugs that could help them win (Ray Lewis and Jamal Lewis immediately come to mind).  Regarding Goodell's ruling, I believe most of the outcry is because there is no consistency in the  discipline handed out in various cases (Ben gets 6 games for alleged assault, Terrelle Pryor 5 games for selling jerseys while in college, and now Rice gets only 2 games for knocking out his girlfriend). 

Wombat
Wombat

To what purpose was the parenthetical Bengals reference? It had no impact upon the story itself and the team has gone to great lengths to repair that situation. Their reputation since has been well above average for NFL teams. Continuing to mention the Bengals as miscreants is blatant bashing against a now well behaved team. Mr. Brandt... that was a cheap shot...

heinousmojo
heinousmojo

Here's what I don't understand about the criticism.  Why is it that the people who know the least about what actually happened (fans and media) are critical of decisions made by the people who know the most about what happened (NJ prosecutors and the NFL commissioner), who have presumably seen the video and interviewed the parties who were directly involved?


Why would NJ prosecutors and Roger Goodell risk their own reputations for Ray Rice?  Do you think maybe that there is any chance that what happened in the elevator - while by no account a good thing - was in fact a much grayer area than what you are assuming happened?

Rugbyoverfootballanyday
Rugbyoverfootballanyday

Does Ray Rice deserve a steeper fine/game ban? Yup.  Was what has been portrayed in the media reprehensible? Of course. Indefensible, even if you can't see any violence only the purported aftermath.


However, if the situation was as bad as indicated, why was his wife with him and apologetic too? Seems like theres more to it than the short snippets the public sees on TMZ. They are getting past it, why can't anyone else?


Does he deserve a second chance? Yes, anyone does.


Is it realistic to expect his team to censor him when the CBA and the agreement with the league puts that in the hands of the Commissioner? Nope. Its a form of double jeopardy. Add to that he's already gone through a legal process and its piling on.


The kid ( and he's 28, definitely still a kid) made a mistake, has owned it, is contrite and went through said legal process - just like any citizen. 


He deserves support. The Ravens organization backs its players going all the way back to Ray Lewis - who was railroaded for not snitching on people, was never implicated as any kind of violent offender. That's media hype. 


In this case, Ray Rice IS also the evolving face of that franchise ( its not Suggs or Flacco - a flake and a boring guy). Dont expect the Ravens or the fans to do anything but back the guy.


If you want to argue that the league picks and chooses its battles in regards to the impact of player conduct, thats totally fair. But dont blame the kid for getting off lightly, thats Roger Goodell's issue, not Ray Rice's or the Ravens.





CobyPreimesberger
CobyPreimesberger

@HoppinBill the problem is now from glazer and i respect him more then mort, we find out from him yesterday, goodell never even looked at the other video, so they didn't review all the evidence and again he suspended big ben, who didn't face charges at all to 6 games no court case, i mean had goodell started at 8 and reduced to 6 i would've been fine with that, as in this case you had a plea and video

rskins09
rskins09

@HoppinBill    How do you arrive at $500K  ?  ..Does Ray make $250K a game ..He will be suspended for two games this year ..Who said he face additional punishment ..State of Maryland said they won't prosecute  Ray two, three months ago ..

BillRobinson
BillRobinson

One of the more sensible posts I have seen on this subject.

jamoke40
jamoke40

@Bernard4195  I also believe that the Ravens covet thugs but also think that punishment from the Ravens would be "piling on."  He married her...isn't that punishment enough?

eddie767
eddie767

@Wombat  He was talking about, another topic, concerning '11 1st rnds and contract extensions. How you missed the topic heading, I don't know.

CobyPreimesberger
CobyPreimesberger

@heinousmojo well henious mojo now we know the truth from glazer, and that is goodell never looked at the before video, and we all presumed we had, but according to glazer, goodell never looked at that video

BillRobinson
BillRobinson

The Internet produces a lynch mob mentality, and people want blood. And too many assume their own perfection in a time of stress.

HoppinBill
HoppinBill

@heinousmojo Exactly!  The media reports on what they know, while decisions are made on what someone with access to more information knows.  We have not seen the video from inside the elevator.  The league and the representatives of the legal system have.  Maybe she was mad at him, took a few swings, he pushed her away a little too hard and she tried to kick him in the shin and tripped and hit her head on the elevator and knocked her self out.  Is that perfectly gentlemanly behavior?  No.  But does that make him a thug or abuser?  No. 


It is crazy that we rush to judgement, or even feel like we are entitled to judge so many thing that we know so little about.  Take it easy, people. 

Bond
Bond

As far as Rice's wife seeming apologetic and doing the press conference I will say that even victims of perpetual abuse will sometimes make excuses for their abuser (not that I think this is the case here). It's a very complex/confusing relationship.

That said a 28 year old, married man can no longer be called a "kid".

CobyPreimesberger
CobyPreimesberger

@rskins09 @HoppinBill here's how as the other stupid thing goodell based his fine on, it was last year's pay base in his contract and not this year's pay base in his contract, as this year he makes more then last year, but somehow goodell overlooked that as well

eddie767
eddie767

@rskins09  The fine, missed pay, and pro rated recouped bonus money. Also, it was NJ that isn't prosecuting. 

rskins09
rskins09

@HoppinBill    Opps -  meant to say NJ won't prosecute  Ray, not Maryland ...

Wombat
Wombat

@eddie767 @Wombat Don't see where you see that, The quote below:


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.


is was I was talking about and it plainly is discussing player conduct in general yet specifically points out past Bengal arrests in spite of it adding nothing to the context of the paragraph...

msprowles
msprowles

@MoeLarryAndJesus @msprowles I wonder if Putin commented here against one of your gems if you would rail at how HE is a nutty Republican too? You are just plain nuts... Please go show some doctor where on the doll the bad man hurt you and leave us in peace...

eddie767
eddie767

@R-Lupin Would it change your mind about Ray? If so, it shows her continuing fight, him pushing her away, and her slipping and hitting her head on railing. He didn't, slug her as some/most think. So yes he put his hands on her, but didn't hit her. Your mind changed yet? 

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