Brandon Wade/AP

At the owners meetings in Dallas, the league announced a new personal conduct policy. A look at how it will work, why Roger Goodell will retain power as final arbiter, and why the NFLPA isn't going to like it

By Jenny Vrentas
December 10, 2014

IRVING, Texas — Let’s start here, with the question that has hung over the 2014 NFL season: How should the NFL have handled the Ray Rice case?

Wednesday at the quarterly league meetings, 32 club owners unanimously voted into place a new personal conduct policy that sets forth their answer to that question. The Rice case put a spotlight on domestic violence in the NFL and led to calls demanding a better response from America’s most popular sports league.

So what will be different now? According to a flow chart being passed around at the Four Seasons Hotel outside Dallas, this is how the process would have played out with Rice.

As soon as the league is notified of Ray Rice’s arrest at the Atlantic City casino, the Special Counsel for Investigations and Conduct—a newly created position—begins investigating. This investigation, not an arrest or charges being filed, determines whether or not the player is placed on paid leave.

The special counsel determines discipline when the investigation is complete. The baseline for violent crimes like domestic violence is now a six-game suspension. Time on paid leave will not count as time served.

Meanwhile, Rice’s then-fiancée and now-wife Janay would have access to club-level “Critical Response Teams,” including counseling and medical attention.

If Rice appeals, a review panel of three outside experts would advise, but the final say on discipline stays where it is now—with the commissioner.

New Policy Not A Negotiation
As the league formulated a new personal conduct policy, the NFLPA was one voice that wasn't heard.
Wednesday’s meetings began around 10 a.m. central time. By noon, Roger Goodell was standing in front of a podium, announcing this new policy two months in advance of the Super Bowl deadline, and heralding it as clear, formal, consistent and transparent.

Despite today’s announcement, the storm has not passed yet. Around the same time that the meetings wrapped up Wednesday evening, ESPN’s Outside the Lines reported that the NFL never contacted anyone about receiving the Rice video: neither Rice’s camp, the casino nor the local police department, according to emails contained in the 631-page transcript of Rice’s appeal hearing of his indefinite suspension. That information cast doubt on the competence of the NFL’s security department and the credibility of Goodell, who said publicly that the league had asked law enforcement for all pertinent evidence, including the video; and, secondly, reinforced the need for wholesale changes in the league’s approach to these cases.

Is this the kind of change the league needed? That depends on the implementation. “We’ve taken a black eye on this,” Giants co-owner John Mara said, “but I think it’s repairable, if we do the right thing going forward.”

Certainly, the NFL has poured time and resources, and cast a wide net, to reach this point. The league says it has consulted with more than 150 experts, a list that includes domestic violence prevention groups, law enforcement officials, current and former players and wives’ organizations. Front and center at the table was Troy Vincent, the executive vice president of football operations, and whose mother was a domestic violence victim; Anna Isaacson, the new vice president of social responsibility; and Lisa Friel, who spent nearly three decades as a sex crimes prosecutor. A new league conduct committee, which will review the policy at least annually, includes Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill, a former federal prosecutor in Phoenix, as well as a female representative, Cowboys executive vice president Charlotte Jones Anderson.

Jane Randel, who founded the NO MORE initiative to combat domestic violence, recently cited a stat that only 4 percent of corporations in the U.S. have a standalone domestic violence and sexual assault policy. The NFL explicitly addressing these issues in its personal conduct policy is an important step forward, one Vincent called “the single most important and satisfying accomplishment of anything I have ever done as part of a team.”

Whether or not it brings about change is a long-term question. But there are some short-term issues, one of which is buy-in by players. The union, and some of the player representatives, have expressed frustration over what they call a “unilateral” implementation of the new policy—one that the NFLPA says it did not see before the owners passed it. There is an argument to be made that the NFL has the right to set the standards of its own multi-billion dollar business; on the other hand, while the owners got to vote on a policy that also applies to them and every employee, the players contend they had no real input.

The union proposed its own policy last month. There were some key differences, including final say on discipline resting with a neutral, third-party arbitrator, and no action by the club or league until felony charges or an indictment. They believe the new policy should have been collectively bargained.

Vincent, once the NFLPA’s president, fired back: “We’re not going to negotiate people’s lives. And we are not going to give that to a third party.”

Interestingly, the owners’ approval of final disciplinary say resting with the commissioner is an affirmation of the power of that position—if not Goodell himself. This, after Judge Barbara Jones ruled that Goodell’s second suspension of Rice, indefinitely, was an “abuse of discretion,” and with Robert Mueller’s investigation into the league’s handling of Rice’s case still pending.

Bidwill: “We have to have that. Everyone in the league, every owner agrees, that the commissioner needs to have final authority.”

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Patriots owner Robert Kraft: “We gave that a lot of thought. The reason is that’s the one person that understands what’s important in the long-term interests of the game. Owners can have specific interests; players can. It’s short term. But the commissioner is always looking for the long-term best interests of the game.”

Browns owner Jimmy Haslam: “At the end of the day, somebody has to make the final call. At the same time, I think he’s freed himself from a lot of the day to day that takes so much of his time and takes him away from running the league.”

And their confidence in Goodell? “Across the board, with everyone in the room,” Bidwill said. Added Haslam: “Really high.”

The Outside the Lines report, though, is one indication that there could be damning information in Mueller’s report. Other storm clouds ahead: The union could challenge it, contending that the new policy is a change to Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement on commissioner discipline, and thus requires agreement by both sides. Also, each new case handled under the policy will be different, and subject to new rounds of scrutiny. As much attention as the case regarding the 49ers’ Ray McDonald drew, for instance—prosecutors dropped charges, after an arrest for domestic violence involving his pregnant fiancée—league officials indicated they might have reached the same conclusion to not take him off the field, only they’d make that decision sooner.

But the forest among the trees here is diminishing these off-the-field acts through attention, prevention and discipline. “It’s been a year like no other,” Mara said. “I am trying to take the optimistic view.”

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