It Goes Beyond Goodell

The commissioner is taking the brunt of the blame for mishandling the Ray Rice discipline. But as with all Personal Conduct Policy matters, there were other factors, and other people, influencing the league's decision
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The blame game for the missteps surrounding the Ray Rice discipline spans far and wide, certainly beyond the reach of the NFL (Atlantic City’s District Attorney has been criticized for allowing Rice to be placed into a pre-trial diversion program). Hopefully, through an independent investigation commissioned by the league, and a grievance on behalf of Rice brought by the NFLPA, we will be able to peel back the layers of what really happened. And, perhaps even more enlightening, it should shed some light on the interrelated business of the NFL and its owners.

Taking the Heat

In the Rice saga, as well as with other disconcerting headlines from the past week, the chief target of public scorn has been the NFL’s commissioner, Roger Goodell. To the masses, he is the corporate face of a business with nearly $10 billion in gross annual revenues. While his actions are at the direction and consent of his bosses—the team owners—Goodell, as part of his role, takes most of the heat while deflecting it away from them.

Not to exonerate Goodell, but the reality is that no discipline to players—especially top players—happens without a coordinated effort with that player’s team. As we are seeing with several team owners allowing star players their “due process” (more on that below), owners often defer to Goodell and let him deal with their problems.

And Goodell has not made it easy on himself. In his self-appointed role as arbiter of player conduct—for which he habitually receive criticism for being too harsh—he is now being condemned for being too soft with Rice, leading to a sense of turmoil surrounding the league’s disciplinary system. Now, depending on the investigation into the investigation, his own Personal Conduct Policy could potentially cause censure even within his ranks, as it can penalize any NFL employee for “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League.”

Why would the commissioner risk so much for Ray Rice? Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti invested significant human and political capital for a player they vouched for; that does not go unnoticed by the commissioner.

The NFL has hired a new Senior Vice President of Public Policy and Government Affairs, Cynthia Hogan, following a slew of domestic violence consultants being retained. For a league that took six months to replace former Senior Vice President Frank Supowitz, the fact that they have created, vetted and hired a new Senior VP in a day is proof of the situation’s magnitude.

I would suggest one other hire for the NFL: an Ombudsman. This person would go a long way to counter criticism the league is taking for its secretive and reactive ways. He or she would be a Robert Mueller-type, not just for the Ray Rice matter but for all things, guarding against maladministration and demanding accountability and transparency.

Now, back to the owners…

Rallying Around Ray

Having at least the same information from Rice as the NFL did—even if you give the benefit of the doubt and assume they didn’t see the second video—the Ravens not only issued no sanctions but also swaddled Rice in a cocoon of support. That included hosting a press conference from which they tweeted updates such as “Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.” Most significant, however, was their conspicuous presence at the all-important meeting between Rice and Goodell on June 16. The team dispatched their two most senior executives, team president Dick Cass and general manager Ozzie Newsome, both with deep ties to the NFL and its staff.

I have been around the NFL for 25 years and have never heard of a senior-level team personnel member present at a disciplinary meeting with the commissioner, let alone two. Indeed, in my time with the Packers, I would never have even contemplated accompanying a player to New York for his meeting with the commissioner; it would seem to me that it is not the team’s role to be at that meeting. When I asked people at the NFL offices if they knew of a similar gesture by a team, they said they did. When I asked for an example, I never received a response.

Political Capital

Let’s be clear: the “NFL” is not Roger Goodell or his vast staff (now even more vast) at 345 Park Avenue. It is a collection of 32 “members,” each with a front-facing presence where relationships are paramount.

There are constantly proposals, transactions or “asks” from owners to the commissioner and/or the membership. And, as with any business, deals are often made with the tacit understanding that support from colleagues and/or the commissioner would be reciprocated at a later time. We have seen a steady stream of owners come out in full support of Goodell since he came under siege, among them Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft, Virginia McCaskey, Dan Snyder and Jerry Richardson. Goodell’s relationship is very important to them; they are not going to desert him at this time.

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As the Rice matter developed, I asked myself the same question over and over: Why would the commissioner risk so much for Ray Rice? (Stop with the answers about his fantasy team.) Well, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti invested significant human and political capital for a player they vouched for; that does not go unnoticed by the commissioner and his staff. It is the way the NFL (and any other business) operates. Politics matter. It is unfortunate, however, that as with most matters in the NFL, discipline can involve politics.

Due Process

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A recent catchphrase from NFL teams has been “due process,” invoked by the 49ers (Ray McDonald), Panthers (Greg Hardy) and Vikings (Adrian Peterson) to allow top-tier players to continue to be part of the team while serious allegations surround them. That sounds nice and supportive, but “due process” is a term of use in the public sector, not the private NFL system. The CBA grants players grievance and arbitration rights from team actions, and the NFLPA, on behalf of a player, can pursue those rights (as Rice is doing). But there is no guarantee of due process.

As I always say, the NFL is not a democracy. Do we really think that Peterson, Hardy or McDonald would be receiving “due process” if they were down-the-roster players? Please. In recent years, under the same ownership and administration, all three of these teams had players with transgressions who were summarily released from the team or, at least, deactivated.

Where was “due process” for these players? Were they somehow under a more stringent code of conduct than today’s players? Of course not. Like other industries, greater talent equals greater tolerance. Due process is a convenient cover for these teams, now feeling the wrath of the public with the national focus on player behavior.

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The Miami Dolphins, never a franchise held up as the gold standard when it comes to management, disciplined Richie Incognito last year with a four-game conduct detrimental suspension for emotionally abusing a teammate (the NFL has never disciplined Incognito). Any of these teams can do the same thing for players who have physically abused women or children. And, if the player so chooses, he can fight the suspension in front of a neutral arbitrator (team discipline warrants neutrality in arbitration, unlike league discipline, which goes to the commissioner).

As much as the commissioner’s role is to be a convenient target, protecting teams and owners by attracting the glare of the spotlight, recent events might force teams to be more accountable.

About Rice’s Grievance

Rice and the NFLPA had to appeal. While he is not the most sympathetic client, his situation demands a grievance from a legal perspective. After (1) an initial suspension of two games after months of deliberation, (2) failure to retroactively apply new domestic violence penalties upon enactment to Rice, and (3) an indefinite suspension levied—to replace the two-game ban—only hours after the "punch video" went viral, the question lingers as to the basis for additional discipline. The NFL cannot simply stack discipline based on public outrage (or if they are doing so, they must explain it in CBA terms). NFLPA lawyers are obligated to challenge the suspension. It serves as a warning shot to the NFL when it comes to "re-discipline" on the same offense.

The Peterson Resolution

Let's be clear what the Adrian Peterson resolution, for now, is: the result of a negotiation, nothing more and nothing less. It was a bargain made between a number of parties with various interests: the NFL, the Vikings, Peterson, CAA (his agency), the NFLPA, and, of course, several lawyers on each side (there will be...). After two days of intense talks, each side came out of the negotiated "settlement" with a deal they could live with. For the NFL, they have removed the specter of Peterson—now toxic to fans and sponsors—suiting up anytime soon. For the Vikings, they have put some distance between themselves and Peterson to allow sponsor and political entities (governor Mark Dayton had voiced displeasure with their actions) to come back to their side. And for Peterson and his camp, his bloated contract continues uninterrupted, at $691,000 per week in gross wages. Everyone is content... for now. A similar negotiation applies to Hardy, playing out with the Panthers and agent Drew Rosenhaus.

Just as political influence and relationships were a driving force behind the initial punishment for Rice, a coordinated effort of motivated parties was able to work out a mutually agreeable resolution on Peterson. Again, it is an unfortunate reality that business interests are driving the train on such delicate issues.

A Violent Game

A side note here with a bit of perspective. With the renewed importance of domestic violence in the national conversation, I was reminded of a conversation I had about a player we once considered adding to the Packers. He had a rap sheet for assault as long as a city block. I was strongly against adding the player, to which a scout looked at me and asked:

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Andrew, what exactly are you thinking we want this guy to do?

“Excuse me?”

We’re asking this guy to get into 75 street fights a game. We’re not asking him to lead the choir here. That rap sheet doesn’t scare me at all.

I will never forget that conversation (we didn’t add the player, although another team did) and it resonates now. Not to excuse Ray Rice or any other player for their actions, but we want violent players on the field and then ask them to turn off that violent approach in their normal lives.

Most players are able to do that. However, a few are not, and with recent events the stakes have been raised—for players, teams and the league—on missteps in this area.