From 2006 to 2011, I wrote for a now-defunct sports blog called, FanHouse. When I first started writing about NFL for them, I didn’t mention that I was a lawyer. It didn’t seem relevant. But then I told them after Roger Goodell’s new personal conduct policy put player criminal justice issues into the spotlight.
I ended up writing about a lot of sports and legal issues.
The following is what I wrote on July 1, 2009. It no longer exists as a link because AOL killed FanHouse, but I found it in the Wayback Machine. I am reprinting it here (without all its dead links) so it is easier to find and quicker to load. I think it is worth reprinting because it demonstrates that Goodell’s current PR crisis is one of his own making, and was absolutely predictable. I’m not sure of how this can be fixed as the NFL has convinced the public that their role in criminal matters is appropriate:
All Hail Roger Goodell…or Else: A Look at the NFL Personal Conduct Policy
(By Stephanie Stradley, Originally Printed July 1, 2009 at FanHouse)
As reported earlier, Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports cites sources suggesting that Michael Vick and Plaxico Burress could be sitting out for a long time, due to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s concerns about their legal matters.
Though the happy talk from the NFL is that the personal conduct policy is working (Donte Stallworth’s victim notwithstanding, I guess), the players are not terribly comfortable with a system that has no specific rules and has no neutral arbiter.
Upcoming Labor Issues
According to the NFL Players Association, league discipline is going to be an issue in the upcoming labor talks:
“League discipline is appealed to the NFL Commissioner or his appointee, and it is not likely that the league is going to disagree with itself when appeals are heard. It is clear from our ongoing team meetings that players see league discipline as becoming more and more excessive, and that the best way to address the problem is to insist that the next CBA require neutral arbitration for league discipline as well.”
Michael David Smith wrote that one of the most unreported stories in the NFL is how much resentment the players have towards the commissioner, in regard to how he has handled disciplinary issues.
The cynic in me thinks that maybe Goodell wants to make the policy as harsh as he can, because he can then use that as a bargaining chip in the negotiations.
As a fan, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with Goodell being police, judge, jury and appeals court regarding player discipline. Are there are no rules for what discipline is going to be other than whatever side of the bed Goodell wakes up on? Or him sticking his finger in the wind and seeing what the mob of public opinion says?
Here’s a review of the NFL Personal Conduct Policy for those of you who either like it or hate it.
History of the Personal Conduct Policy
The biggest change from the old policy to the updated one currently in place is that it is now easier for the commissioner to discipline players, even if they were innocent in the eyes of the law — “innocent” meaning that there hasn’t been a final disposition of their case in a court of law.
Repeated offenders can be disciplined on an “expedited basis.” And first-time offenders can be disciplined immediately if the matter involves “significant bodily harm.”
The policy came to be because of Pacman Jones — the Titans barely disciplined their own player because they wanted to keep him on the field. Teams disciplined their star players differently than their non-star players (which still happens under the new personal conduct policy).
On top of that, Goodell clearly was concerned that the legal system didn’t punish players fast enough or hard enough. Goodell also didn’t want to have to wait for the legal system to take its course before he effectuated league punishment.
He wants to hold the players to a higher punishment than just what the law requires.
I understand that some people don’t like the American criminal justice system. They get concerned that celebrities get special treatment, and they hate how slow the process tends to go. Some people believe that proving “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” is a foolish standard that should be replaced with “everybody knows he’s guilty.”
But I’m not sure that it helps the NFL’s image any by coming up with their own extra-legal discipline beyond what happens with the justice system or punishing innocent people. It just turns the focus of the league into Court TV.
I’ve repeatedly written on this subject. When the policy was first enacted, I was concerned about the “Unintended Consequences of NFL Personal Conduct Policy:”
“I’m the last one to be an apologist for lawbreaking NFL players, but I’ve been wondering lately if the NFL’s new personal conduct policy actually INCREASES the amount of attention given to NFL player badness….Ultimately, at least in the short term, it seems as though the NFL personal conduct policy designed to get players to stop damaging the NFL’s reputation may actually be bringing more attention to player’s misdeeds.”
And, I believe, this is what happened. It seems like so much NFL talk is now dedicated to trying to figure out appropriate punishments for different player actions. I’m not sure how much it improves the image of the league when newspapers, blogs and sports talk have to spend large amounts of time discussing players’ criminal activities and wondering about vague suspension rules instead of what happens on the field.
The talk associated with the uncertainty of Goodell’s punishment puts more attention on player misdeeds and less on the majority of players who don’t get sideways with the law.
Extra Punishment Leads to Strange Outcomes
When a league decides to create its own form of punishment beyond what the legal system does, without any guidelines other than what is in Goodell’s brain, it can lead to weird outcomes.
Should league punishment of DUI Manslaughter be worse than punishment of DUI? Mike Florio at PFT.com suggests the answer should be no. Dumb luck is the only difference between drunk driving that kills someone and doesn’t.
Should DUI or dog fighting or shooting yourself in the leg lead to harsher punishment than domestic violence?
You can make all sorts of arguments for different punishments, but it seems to me that it becomes convoluted trying to come up with an ad hoc system that leads to outcomes that will satisfy the NFL’s image concerns.
Revisions in the Policy for 2009 and Gaming the System
Rumors suggest that the 2009 Personal Conduct Policy is going to be rewritten in a way to make it easier to quickly discipline first-time arrested players. This has become an issue in the Plaxico Burress case because of perceived gaming of the system. According to the Yahoo! report, Goodell is angry that Burress is not accepting a plea deal that involves jail time. The thought is that, by not accepting a plea, he is purposely delaying an outcome so he can still play this season.
Of course, it may be that Burress is not accepting that sort of plea due to his lawyer’s belief that jail time is a harsher sentence than what non-celebrities would receive in similar circumstances.
So What Should the NFL Do?
Given that Goodell has decided that, for image reasons he needs to take over the role of the courts, I’m thinking one of two things happen: 1. He keeps tweaking the policy for each nasty case that comes down the road; 2. The players, at some point, rebel against it in the labor talks.
I don’t know. I kind of preferred it when our imperfect legal system dealt with player misconduct, and the commissioner primarily dealt with sports stuff. And that the only speculation was going to be what would the courts do, instead of what random thing the commissioner might do, and whether his actions were going to favor or hurt a particular player or team.
Who needs blackballing and collusion when the uncertainty of what Goodell might do will keep players from being signed by anyone?
You might think my concerns are overblown, but not likely if your team is the one that got their salary cap destroyed because of an accusation against a player, or is in limbo trying to find out the fate of a key player. If the goal of the policy is decrease player criminal acts and to improve the league’s image, I am not sure it is working. There’s too much talk about player bad acts, and partially it’s because the policy puts the focus on whatever Goodell might be thinking.
The American legal system isn’t perfect, but at least there are actual rules.