The following is a re-typed version of a NFL discipline column I wrote about Roger Goodell for the now defunct sports blog, FanHouse. Originally, when AOL sold the name, we were told that the links would remain live. That turned out to be not true.
While it was still live, I printed off quickly a few of my favorite pieces I wrote. This is one of them. I’ve re-typed the piece in its original form without the original links that explained extra context. [the text was too small for an accurate pdf conversion]
Is Roger Goodell an ‘Unthinking Moralist’
(originally written by Stephanie Stradley, April 1, 2008 for FanHouse)
Jeffrey Standen, a professor of law at Williamette University writes a blog called The Sports Law Professor. His most recent entry, entitled “Roger Goodell and the Cheating Scandal,” I think is worth a read, even if I don’t agree with all of it.
His argument is nuanced and is best read in its non-summarized form, but he’s a blogger so he knows how these things work. His contention is that the most profitable sports league in the world could have chosen someone more educated, reasoned and accomplished to be its commissioner. That so far in his job, Roger Goodell is “starting to look like an unthinking moralist.”
A moralist, as Professor Standen explains, is “the kind of person who prefers to arrive at the facile, stark ethical conclusion than to perform the heavy mental exercise of making fine distinctions that might produce a better answer.”
From this POV, Goodell has painted himself into a corner with the severity of the rhetoric and punishment he’s used to respond to the
Patriotgate Spygate and player discipline scandals.
“A commissioner only has so much moral capital to expend,” he writes, and Goodell has spent his in awkward, to high profile ways.
I’m not sure I agree with his conclusions relating to Spygate. (I believe Goodell is responding in part to the pressure he is feeling from Senator Arlen Specter). However, I do have significant concerns about Goodell turning the commissioners office into nothing more than an arbitrary and capricious police, jury and judge.
In 2008, fans spend as much time trying to figure out punishments and their possible effects as they debate who will be draft picks or how their team will do next year. Here are some examples:
Player Discipline: Who knows how long PacMan Jones will be suspended? His suspension ended up being worse because Jones decided to go to a strip club the night before meeting with Goodell. NFL sports talk now involved how to structure a deal for a player when you have no idea when his suspension will be lifted. (Which is very different from talking about when his criminal cases are resolved.)
When you have an extremely vague standard for when someone will be suspended and how long that punishment will last, it creates media and fan debate on punishment issues. These debates in the mass media will always fall along moralistic lines.
What is going to happen to Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie? He pled not guilty to charges of aggravated battery, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. It sure would be nice for the Vikings and their fans to know what the extent of his punishment will be, if any, going into the draft.
And what is going to happen to Steeler Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison, if anything/ He was accused of breaking down his girlfriend’s door, slapping her across the face and breaking her cell phone. (The Steelers cut ties with wide receiver Cedric Wilson immediately after he was accused of something similar, but he is a worse player than Harrison, so as FanHouser J.J. Cooper explains, the Steeler standard for his behavior is higher).
Harrison’s situation doesn’t involve repeated bad acts, but it does look a little strange when former Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick is likely going to be suspended for years no matter when he gets out of jail for the abuse of his dogs. Vick sits in limbo, but it’s possiblethat there will be no suspension for a player who hits a woman. When you throw the book at some things but not with others, it can look a little incongruous, even if you have good reasons for it.
Spygate. Goodell gave the Patriots the harshest NFL sanction ever, and some believe he did it before even having all the evidence. If former Patriot employee Matt Walsh ever gets to talking and has evidence of crimes that are worse than the punishment was originally, is Goodell going to double down?
Professor Standen believes:
“The ever-widening cheating scandal that now plagues the NFL would never have happened under Paul Tagliabue’s watch. He would have quietly fined the Patriots and moved on.”
Hard to say this with certainty, but Goodell embracing the role of grandstanding sheriff creates an expectation of additional sanctions and public pronouncements. Nothing can be handled quietly anymore.
Tampering. The 49ers get draft picks taken away for doing what most all the other teams do, and they didn’t even get the tampered player. Chicago gets to benefit from the tampering charge, even though they weren’t really harmed, by switching third round picks with the 49ers.
If this is moralism, it may be a highly ineffective strain. Who knows what the long term effects of this punishment will be other than maybe changing the way that teams handle their interoffice emails/
Strangely enough, the way that Goodell’s punishment came down, he seems to conclude that violating the rule against spying on another team is 11 times worse than tampering.
Overall. Recently, Goodell put his sheriff’s hat on again, and in a memo announced that the league wants to conduct unannounced searches of locker rooms and press boxes, and to inspect in-game communications devices. After a string of alarmingly arbitrary rulings, he’s stated that he wants to lower the standard of proof needed for him to impose penalties on a coach, executive or team.
Does that really make you feel better about the integrity of the game?
Last summer I discussed my concerns that Goodell’s player personal conduct policy had the unintended consequence of increasing the attention that fans pay to bad actions. It causes fans and media to debate what potential penalties will occur because there is no real standards, and Goodell has put himself in the spotlight as the decider of everything.
Interestingly, Michael David Smith in his work for the New York Times states that the most underreported story in the NFL is the resentment that some players feel toward the commissioner. And why not? The penalties are unprecedented, the standards for punishment vague with little due process, and the publicity from this tends to bring more attention to NFL bad acts.
Thought many fans have been generally supportive of Goodell’s crackdown, you’ll hear a different tune if you ask a fan of a team trying to navigate the draft under an utterly opaque cloud of uncertainty.
Whether or not Roger Goodell is guided by an inflated sense of morality is frankly secondary to the fact that, whatever is guiding him, it isn’t consistent. For all anyone can tell, he’s just making stuff up as he goes along.
This blog post is a bit back to the future.
Harsh, arbitrary punishments combined with no concern for fair process means that the cycle will repeat with different topics, names, processes, teams.
We will hear the headline version of events given to us by the NFL. The people investigated often cannot defend themselves publicly due to pending litigation and fears that speaking out will anger the commissioner more and be seen as lies and obstruction. Confession and remorse are often required by Goodell, and is not an option for those who maintain actual innocence.
Unfair process means that fans often don’t hear anything close to the real truth about a controversy. And we know that the process is unfair because there is no reasoned way for a targeted player, staff member, team to maintain a claim of actual innocence.
After the Brady case is done, the NFL will likely tweak their processes without looking at their overall philosophy of punishment. And the cycle will continue.
Please note: These comments below are moderated by me. I know people are angry about this subject, but I’d prefer no personal attacks of people and a focus on NFL discipline system issue questions and answers.