It’s Past Time, Commissioner

If the NFL is going to make good on promises to address its domestic violence problem it must act now, and it's time for Roger Goodell to come out of hiding and answer to his critics
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This story was updated at 5 p.m. on Wednesday.

NEW YORK—A source with knowledge of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s mindset this week said something Wednesday that is very bad news for the 2014 playing status of Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy: “Roger has determined that he will be a leader in the domestic-violence space.”

Indeed, Hardy will be missing from the Carolina lineup indefinitely. Found guilty of domestic violence in July by a Charlotte judge, Hardy landed on the same “Commissioner’s Exempt List” that provided a solution to the Minnesota Vikings and Adrian Peterson early Wednesday. After the Minnesota governor, league mega-sponsor Anheuser-Busch and the league office leaned on the Vikings and Peterson, all parties became convinced that the idea of Peterson playing was untenable with the cloud of child abuse hanging over him. So he agreed to be placed on the Exempt List, and he will be basically on administrative leave with pay until his case in Texas is heard. He stands accused of whipping his 4-year-old son with a slender tree branch and leaving multiple open wounds. He is due in Montgomery County (Texas) Court on Oct. 8. It’s conceivable the best running back in Vikings history has played his last game with the team.

Carolina found itself in a similar position with Hardy. The judge in the case, Rebecca Thorn-Tin, ruled that she was “entirely convinced Hardy is guilt of assault on a female.” During open court testimony, the woman testified, “[Hardy] looked me in my eyes and told me he was going to kill me.” Under North Carolina law Hardy’s case will now be heard by a jury, which may rule differently from Judge Thorn-Tin. Nevertheless, in the current environment around the league office—where a black cloud has been residing over it for the last 10 days—it’s almost inconceivable the league will let Hardy take the field for Carolina in the near future.

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As news broke in Minneapolis about Peterson and and in Charlotte with Hardy on Wednesday, a meeting was underway inside the NFL offices in midtown Manhattan, led by new vice president of social responsibility Anna Isaacson. It included the league’s three new senior advisers (Lisa Friel, Jane Randel and Rita Smith) named this week to help the NFL plan, shape and implement new policies in the league’s 31 team cities. In the next week or so the league is expected to have a training program set up for advisers and counselors in the program. Goodell wants the programs in place during this season.

If Goodell is serious about making the NFL a leader in the national fight against domestic violence, time is of the essence. All eyes are on the NFL to make a difference, and to respond after appearing so lax early in the Rice case and after letting Hardy go through training camp with the Panthers and play in Week 1. Critics of the league, and they are growing daily, say that for years it has turned a blind eye to domestic abuse. As if on cue Wednesday afternoon, lawyer Gloria Allred came forth with a seven-year-old case accusing Bears receiver Brandon Marshall of domestic abuse, and blamed Goodell for a lax response.

The NFL has begun to address concerns that it is soft on domestic violence and child abuse (which is being treated as a form of domestic violence by the league) with the indefinite ban of Ray Rice for assaulting his wife in an Atlantic City elevator, and by working with the Vikings and Panthers to get Peterson and Hardy off the field.

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Even the most ardent of NFL fans probably hadn’t heard of the Commissioner Exempt List before this morning. According to NFL bylaws, “The Exempt List is a special player status available to clubs only in unusual circumstances. Only the Commissioner has the authority to place a player on the Exempt List; clubs have no such authority, and no exemption, regardless of circumstances, is automatic. The Commissioner also has the authority to determine in advance whether a player’s time on the Exempt List will be finite or will continue until the Commissioner deems the exemption should be lifted and the player returned to the Active List.”

So Goodell will have the power with Peterson and Hardy, and in any future cases, after the cases have been fully adjudicated to determine when, or if, the players can be active again.

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Many will ask: Why isn’t Ray McDonald subject to the same sanction? McDonald, the San Francisco defensive end, was accused of assaulting his pregnant fiancée on Aug. 31 in California. McDonald, however, has not had his day in court yet. The Rice evidence has been seen by the world, through the video obtained by TMZ. Though Hardy still could be cleared in the jury trial, a judge heard testimony from both sides in his case and found him guilty. In the Peterson case, he admitted whipping his child. McDonald has admitted nothing, and he has stridently told the 49ers he is not guilty of the charges. Until a court hears evidence, or until McDonald admits guilt, it’s unlikely the league will step in.

That’s the slippery slope of due process. It has not played out with finality in the Peterson or Hardy cases, but there’s enough evidence for the league to act. Due process has not played out at all in the McDonald case, so he plays on—and in my opinion he should.

One last point: Where is Goodell in all of this? Why has he not spoken, other than brief CBS and USA Today interviews to the millions of disaffected fans who view his league as increasingly disconnected? The league is in chaos, and America needs to hear from him. I believe he certainly should have spoken by now. I expect him to surface from his Park Avenue office and speak by the end of the week, when he feels he has some substance to discuss in the realm of domestic violence and the state of his embattled league.

It’s remarkable what’s happened to the NFL in the last 10 days. “Otherworldly” is how one veteran league employee termed it this week. The only way the NFL can emerge from this with its dignity and social impact intact is to make a difference on the domestic violence front, and with sanctions and an education program that matter.

In the meantime, a good start would be for Goodell to hold an all-comers press conference. No holds barred. Answer everything. It’s past time.