NEW YORK — The NFL fall meeting is usually a quiet one-day affair, ignored by much of the mainstream media. Not so Wednesday. The Conrad Hotel, a long spiral from the new Freedom Tower and 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan, was teeming with more than 100 media members, a few here from Buffalo for the transfer of Bills ownership from the Wilson family to Terry and Kim Pegula; the unanimous vote “took about 15 seconds," Bills president Russ Brandon said. And the rest came to gauge how Roger Goodell’s bosses, the owners of the 32 NFL franchises, feel about the commissioner after the hurricane of domestic violence and player misdeeds buffeted the league through September.
Good luck with that. Normally at these meetings, reporters can sidle up to owners and club presidents and league-office honchos. But here, the media was bullpenned away from close contact with owners and top club officials. When normally garrulous owners like Robert Kraft of the Patriots and Jerry Jones of the Cowboys passed by the roped-off areas with no comment, you understood this was a different NFL for now … a tight-lipped league with a commissioner under fire from much of NFL America.
But there was still much to learn from the eight-hour meeting, which was much more a working session than an airing of grievances over how the league has handled domestic violence and personal conduct. Six points:
1. The owners have bought in to the fact that the domestic violence issue resonates with football fans and American consumers, and they understand they need to respond aggressively to ensure the country believes they’re serious about disciplining players who engage in abuse.
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2. There is no consensus among owners and top club officials about when players accused of domestic violence should be taken off the field. Three hours of education/discussion/debate made it clear that there’s no obvious answer to whether it should take an accusation or an indictment or a conviction to remove a player from his team.
3. Goodell needs to get out of the discipline business. Most of it, anyway. When it comes to integrity-of-the-game issues, owners think Goodell should not yield the right to be the judge and jury for matters such as bounties or charges of cheating. But for domestic-abuse and other discipline cases, it’s becoming clear that Goodell should cede that authority the way he did last month with appeals under the new drug policy. A panel of neutral parties, or simply one neutral discipline czar, should handle them—with clear and defined guideposts.
4. The owners support Goodell, and there is no movement or a hint of one that, at the moment, would put his job in jeopardy.
5. The future of football in Los Angeles is percolating, and fans in Oakland, St. Louis and San Diego should be wary. Nothing imminent there, though.
6. Goodell didn’t seem intimidated by the criticism he’s taken in the press and public over the past month. “He showed contrition without being meek," said one NFC executive.
One more NFL development that was in the spotlight Wednesday: the recent hiring of former New York sex-crimes prosecutor Lisa Friel.
Former sex-crimes prosecutor Lisa Friel has been hired by the NFL to help establish a new policy on domestic violence. (Seth Wenig/AP)
Last month, Goodell called the 57-year-old Lisa Friel, formerly in charge of the sex-crime unit in the New York District Attorney’s office, and urged her to come to the league office to help put out the wildfire he’d started with his handling of the Ray Rice case. Goodell had previously known Friel. She is a big football fan; New York Giants season tickets have been in her family for decades, and she has been to each of the three Giants home games this fall. In one long conversation after TMZ published the video of Rice assaulting his then-fiancée, Friel said Goodell convinced her he wanted to set a new and consistent policy to address domestic violence.
“I would never have agreed to sign up for this for PR purposes," Friel said. “I wouldn’t have agreed to come into this situation unless I was sure he [Goodell] was 100 percent committed to finding a solution. I am just as committed to getting it right."
Most team officials encountered Friel for the first time Wednesday morning, when she stood in front of them at the start of a session addressing domestic violence and the re-examination of the personal conduct policy. She explained the dilemma that confronted the league. In a state such as North Carolina there are two legal proceedings in a criminal case—a judge's finding of guilt or innocence, followed by the option of a jury trial. In some states a domestic-violence call to police results in an automatic arrest of the charged person. In some states police are called, the parties are calmed for the moment, and local investigators determine whether there should be a charge; that could take weeks, as in the current case of San Francisco defensive lineman Ray McDonald, who continues to play while his case is investigated. Friel emphasized that the law is messy, some cases are complicated and emotionally charged, and there’s no easy way out of the morass.
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"I liked what I heard," said Giants president and CEO John Mara. “She was tough and very thorough."
"Very smart," said Arizona president Michael Bidwill, a former federal prosecutor in Phoenix. “She knows the subject very well.”
As another top club official said, Friel brought a prosecutor’s mindset, not a league lawyer’s approach, to the meeting Wednesday. In the wake of the Rice problems and the insular approach so often taken by the league, owners seem willing to trust an outsider with expertise over someone with a strong NFL résumé like Goodell’s right-hand legal counsel, Jeff Pash. She began her presentation to the owners by telling them how much she loved football—and how long the Giants’ tickets have been in the family. In other words, I am not your adversary. I want to help you.
During a break in the meeting, Friel said: “We’re looking to make the process by which allegations and violations of the policy are more consistent and more transparent. For instance, when should a player come off the field? Should it be upon arrest, upon charged, upon indictment? There are 50 states with 50 different processes for how they proceed on a criminal complaint. So we wanted to get across to the owners [that] here are the complications of trying to figure out a consistent, transparent place. And how should we investigate it? Should the NFL be its own internal investigator or continue to rely exclusively on law enforcement, which is what it’s done for its whole history?"
One more thing: Mara said it could take “several months" for the investigation into the Rice video and consequences to be completed by former FBI director Robert Mueller. That gives the NFL time to get its personal-conduct house in order. From the sounds of it Wednesday, the NFL will need all that time.