When we look back on the tenure of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell decades from now—which has reportedly been extended another five years—one of the defining aspects will be Goodell prioritizing player conduct far more than other commissioners, in the NFL and other sports. I watched the priority on player conduct change drastically from as Goodell took over from former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, a lawyer. There was a new sheriff in town, and he remains committed to this issue.
Debating whether the NFL should be in the business of investigating and disciplining off-field conduct is nice for an academic setting. The practical reality, however, is that the league’s leader has prioritized being in that business, so they are.
The PRV (Post-Rice Video) Era
The release of the explosive Ray Rice video forced the league and its teams to change their business models in regard to its treatment of domestic violence accusations. After first only suspending Rice for two games, the NFL changed their tune once the video was made public, immediately suspending Rice indefinitely. That punishment was ultimately overturned on appeal, but Rice hasn’t played a down in the NFL since—and probably never will.
On the team side, the Ravens—who had supported Rice unequivocally pre-video, even hosting a press conference for him—summarily released him.
The league also immediately hired experts in domestic violence and reached out to groups experienced in this arena (while ignoring the NFLPA). Goodell, forever criticized for being too harsh and overreaching with player discipline, was being excoriated for being too soft with the initial two-game suspension of Rice, and responded accordingly.
Ezekiel Elliot’s six-game suspension represents that purported baseline standard punishment, which was announced with some fanfare in Dec. 2014 following a few turbulent months after the initial release of that video.
Nothing happens in a vacuum; the NFL is no exception. The tough penalty imposed on Elliott may not be directly related to lingering criticism regarding Rice, but we would be naïve to dismiss any kind of connection. Had Elliot did what he did in the summer of 2014 rather than the summer of ’16 he, like Rice, would have not received more than a two-game suspension, the baseline enforcement at that time. That was then; this is now.
Beyond the justice system
In response to the criticism for the Rice situation, the NFL had made a point to say that the two-game suspension was harsher discipline than judicial system had levied, where Rice was diverted to pre-trial intervention. As to that disposition, I interviewed the New Jersey judge who signed off on Rice’s diversion program.
Discipline harsher than the legal system had been a hallmark of Goodell long before the Rice matter. In 2010 Goodell suspended Ben Roethlisberger six games (later reduced to four for “good behavior”) for actions with a woman in a bar bathroom that did not result in any criminal charge. Now Goodell has returned to his more stringent self, emboldened by the new (2014) policy. Although not all of the policy…
During the 2014 season, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy were put on the seldom-used Commissioner Exempt List, allowing the NFL to soothe braying partners by keeping them off the field amid disturbing allegations. Despite the NFLPA being ignored in its formulation, protesting the Exempt List and filing an unsuccessful grievance challenging it, it remains a feature of the policy.
Spinning back to Elliott—the misbehavior occurred a year ago, so why wasn’t Elliott placed on the Exempt List in 2016, like Peterson and Hardy were in ’14, while this was all sorted out? Perhaps Goodell can now say to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones: “Yes, he got six games but you had him all of last year and we didn’t use the Exempt List!”
Pleasing all 32
Jones now joins other owners who have been, at one time or another, “furious” at the commissioner yet seem to be able to get over it quickly.
Believe me when I say this: every team, without exception, believes that Goodell and the NFL office treats other teams better than it treats them. It is a universal paranoia that Goodell and his staff deal with on a daily basis. And for every decision that enrages Jones or Robert Kraft or another owner, there are many other owners saying “Attaboy Roger!”
Jones supported Goodell’s harsh treatment of Tom Brady; I would guess Kraft supports Goodell’s harsh treatment of Elliott. NFL owners compartmentalize well, know that business is booming and asset values are skyrocketing and truly appreciate that Goodell taking the heat so they don’t have to. Goodell’s lack of owner support has continuously been overstated and over-exaggerated. His contract extension this week, amid howls about his performance from outsiders, reflects that.
There will be lawyers
Elliott and his team of NFLPA lawyers are, of course, appealing (there is no downside to doing so). And although Goodell’s appointed hearing officer Harold Henderson reduced the Greg Hardy penalty from ten games to four (and that Henderson is not Goodell), he is clearly not an impartial decision maker. I have argued grievances and arbitration (both for players and for the Packers) in front of Henderson; there may be no person more institutionally aligned with the NFL league office than he.
It is going to be difficult for Elliott to make gains disputing the facts; the NFL spent a year gathering facts that produced its 160-page report and is going to emphasize the thoroughness of its report. Elliott may be best served coming to the hearing on bended knee and apologizing profusely for his actions, for embarrassing the Cowboys brand and for not treating the victim as he should have. Goodell has shown some empathy in the past based on remorse (many thought he would have reduced Tom Brady’s suspension with a show of remorse); Elliott’s genuine apology may earn him back a game or two off the suspension.
Back to where we started
As every dispute over recent years does, it brings us back to the CBA-endorsed powers of the Commissioner, powers that was actually strengthened, not weakened, after all the twists and turns of the Brady case. Goodell has been accused of being too harsh, too soft, too arbitrary, etc. but here is the reality: he has never been in any real danger of being removed from the role he clearly values.
To those who say that the NFLPA did not prioritize reining in Goodell’s powers in the 2011 CBA negotiations because this was not an issue back then, well it was an issue (see Roethlisberger above) and they did prioritize it before moving to other areas to try to make gains.
NFL and NFLPA leadership obviously do not trust or like each other. Now they will meet in the place they always seem to meet, an adversarial proceeding, with Ezekiel Elliott the latest player caught in the crossfire. We have seen this movie before. Ultimately, we are back to defining Goodell in the same way as when he took office in 2006: the Conduct Commissioner.
Programming note: speaking of the NFLPA, I was interviewed by Bryant Gumbel for HBO’s Real Sports for a segment on NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith and the ten-year collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFLPA, something I analyzed in two parts last year: Part 1, Part 2. The program debuts on Aug. 22 at 11 p.m. ET, with other airings according to HBO listings.
• This week’s edition of “Why not Kaepernick?” comes from Jacksonville as many suggest the Jaguars, fresh off another uncomfortably poor performance from Blake Bortles, should sign Kaepernick. The drumbeat will roll with every team facing a quarterback issue until Kaepernick is signed. Again, he is a much bigger story unsigned then signed.
• The Jaguars are universally lauded for their free agent signings and draft picks every year, always a trendy pick going into the season. And then…
• For those suggesting that any of the players currently sitting out of camp—Leveon Bell, Donald Penn, Duane Brown or Aaron Donald—will actually miss any real games, please.