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NFL owners seek consistent approach to combat domestic violence


NEW YORK -- The furious reversing of field by the NFL that began in the firestorm created by the release of the second Ray Rice video is still very much a work in progress. There’s no way of knowing just how much or how quickly ground can be gained in the bid to repair the league’s damaged reputation.

But the league’s effort to at least identify a new direction and head for it took a significant step Wednesday when the NFL spent roughly five hours of its one-day fall owners meeting on matters dealing with the revamping of its personal conduct policy.

Details of potential new facets of the policy remain scarce. This much is clear: The NFL is still in the talking and gathering information stage of this new push, and even some of the league’s most garrulous owners -- like Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft, to name two --  declined interview requests and provided no insight into how the league is going to get to where it wants to be on the issues of domestic violence and social responsibility.

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What we do know is that in their first gathering since the Rice controversy re-erupted Sept. 8, NFL owners sat through waves of presentations and speakers designed to educate them on new approaches to the issues that rocked the league and commissioner Roger Goodell over the course of the past month.

“I know everybody wants specific answers right away, but that’s just not the right way to do things,’’ New York Giants co-owner John Mara said, just after the nine-plus-hour meeting broke at a lower Manhattan hotel. “I was encouraged listening to the presentations today. I think we’re moving in the right direction.’’

If there was one voice expressing optimism that the league might be able to fast-track a new comprehensive and consistent personal conduct policy, it belonged to Lisa Friel, the former New York City sex crimes prosecutor who spoke to team owners Wednesday and is serving as an outside adviser to the league on how to revise its policies.

Asked for a realistic time table for having a new code of conduct in place, Friel said the league could beat the original goal that Goodell set of establishing the policy change by the time Super Bowl 49 rolls around in early February.

“I would think by the Super Bowl, if not before,’’ Friel said. “I think we could have something perhaps even earlier than that ... But I think everybody is committed to doing this in a thoughtful way and not just knee-jerk and do something quickly that might make some people happy, but would not be the appropriate thing for an ongoing process. The owners were great. They were very thoughtful and they didn't all have the same opinion, which kind of emphasized how complicated the situation is.’’

One of the biggest and trickiest parts of the policy overhaul is expected to be how the issue of the commissioner’s disciplinary authority will be reduced and/or shared in terms of personal conduct, which is inevitable at this point. Goodell is open to change on that front, but he also signaled Wednesday that he will fight to retain some portions of his ability to mete out discipline.

“As I have said, everything is on the table," Goodell said in a wrap-up news conference at the close of the meeting. “We’ve been debating internally for well over a year whether there's a better process. At the same time, when something affects the integrity of the game, I think it's important for the commissioner to retain that authority."

Goodell prepared to cede some power in NFL's disciplinary process

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One of the most difficult issues owners started learning about at the meeting included the thorny questions of when to take players who have been arrested off the field. Though Goodell introduced the idea of codifying the interim step of a paid leave in a memo to teams earlier this week, there was no early consensus forming behind any one approach on Wednesday. 

Friel said the discussion stayed focused on the big picture and the process of finding a coherent and consistent policy on the question of when to impose league punishment, and the high-profile cases of Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy -- which brought this issue to light recently -- were not dealt with specifically.

“We’re looking to make the process by which allegations and violations of the policy are more consistent and more transparent,’’ Friel said. “For instance, when should a player come off the field? Should it be upon arrest? Upon being charged? Upon indictment? There are 50 states with 50 different processes for how they proceed on a criminal complaint.

“[What] we wanted to get across to the owners here are the complications of trying to figure out a consistent, transparent policy, and we got their input on what they think on those issues. That’s the beginning spot. When do they come off the field while the case is pending if there’s a criminal case, and how should we investigate it? Should the NFL do their own internal investigations or continue to rely exclusively on law enforcement, which is what it’s done for its whole history?’’

The question of when to remove players from the field who have been arrested is likely the foremost component of any new conduct policy revision, and it’s the issue that figures to take the longest to work through.

“That’s what we’re working on, how do we do that when all the states have different laws,’’ Texans owner Bob McNair said as he was leaving the meeting. “We’re working on that issue because we do need consistency. So everybody understands, and also from a competitive standpoint that some teams are sitting players down and other teams are not. Paid leave is one way to deal with it. That’s something we’re considering. The question is, at what point do you employ that?’’

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, whose club was the epicenter of last year’s debate over the workplace environment in NFL locker rooms, said Wednesday’s sessions and speakers prompted introspection among he and his fellow owners.

“This forces you to look at yourself and see where you are, and recognize how much higher the profile of the NFL [is] and that it has to have a higher standard than in the common workplace,’’ Ross said. “It makes you think about it more and recognize and make sure you’re living by that higher standard. Everybody’s aware of what’s gone on and the impact it’s had. In a situation like that you really have to look at yourself and understand the facts of what you’re hearing and how you need to respond to it.’’

NFL ownership as a whole started hearing the need for change on Wednesday, and started talking about it. But a coherent, consistent and transparent response to the challenges of revising the league’s personal conduct policy is still not at hand.

NOTE: Though a recent report indicating the league is hopeful of relocating a team to the long-vacant Los Angeles market in either 2015 of 2016 generated headlines, there was no indication from owners on Wednesday that such a development is imminent or even likely.

“Not in my opinion,’’ Giants co-owner Steve Tisch said, when asked if the NFL’s effort to get to Los Angeles has moved forward. “It hasn’t gone backwards, but it really hasn’t gone forward. There’s certainly no breaking news.’’