Roger Goodell does not protect The Shield. He is a shield. The NFL commissioner professes to defend the image and substance of his league, but he’s really a $44 million PR man, providing a haircut, a suit and a solemn voice to take the heat his 32 owners wish to avoid.
Crisis creates opportunity. The botched suspension of Ray Rice and subsequent Adrian Petersen debacle gave Goodell the chance to be something more. He could have treated players as partners rather than troublemakers-in-waiting. Instead, with an opening for real change, he did what owners wanted and marginalized players while maintaining centralized disciplinary control. He did what he always did, what led to this year’s disaster in the first place.
On Wednesday, Goodell rolled out a new Personal Conduct Policy, unanimously approved by the owners. The news release deemed it “revised and strengthened.” It introduced new guidelines, policies, protocols and measures. It will be overseen by a nine-member Conduct Committee, and the composition of that committee shows how little real change there will be. There are nine members. All have at least some ownership stake in a team. Five are majority owners. One is an owner’s wife. One is a team executive vice president. Two are formers players – Warrick Dunn and John Stallworth – who have become minority owners.
Any solution needed to start with rebuilding the credibility of the commissioner’s office. The process by which Goodell arrived at the new policy only continued to tear it down. “The only credible salutation for a new personal conduct policy is one that would be collectively bargained,” NFLPA Assistant Executive Director of External Affairs George Atallah said in late November. The Players Association never even saw the new policy before the league trotted it out and shoved it down their throats.
“Our union has not been offered the professional courtesy of seeing the NFL’s new personal conduct policy before it hit the presses,” the NFLPA said in an e-mailed statement. “Their unilateral decision and conduct today is the only thing that has been consistent over the past few months.”
There are changes in the new policy, but the document as a whole represents a continuation of how Goodell operates. He does what the owners tell him to do, acting to perpetuate the authority of his office rather than the best interest of the sport and the league. From the start, Goodell’s words suggested he wanted change, and his actions ensured the status quo.
Perhaps the biggest change in the policy is Goodell removing himself from the role of initial disciplinarian and appointing someone new to the role. But in the wake of the announcement, the NFL conceded the creation of a new disciplinary officer maintained the same system as before. As reported Wednesday by the Post’s Mark Maske:
“That’s not a change,” said league general counsel Jeff Pash, who estimated that 70 percent of initial disciplinary rulings in the past have made by someone other than Goodell. Pash added: “All that we’re doing is having a different member of the commissioner’s staff make a decision.”
In a September news conference, Goodell admitted his poor handling of Rice’s initial two-game suspension, which former judge Barbara Jones confirmed in late Novembers when she vacated Rice’s indefinite suspension. Goodell and the NFL, Jones ruled, punished Rice a second time even though they possessed all the relevant information the first time around. They knew he had punched his wife in an elevator when they gave him two games. Increasing the suspension was a reaction to the public uproar following the release of video from inside the elevator, not to any new information. It was image protection in place of administering justice.
At the news conference in September, Goodell offered to work with the Players Association to amend policies and avoid future mistakes. “Everything is on the table,” he said.
The NFL never even came to the table in earnest. In October, the union sent the NFL a list of proposals, including a stipulation that all punishment would be decided by a neutral party. The NFL responded in late November – almost two months later – with a letter from Pash in which the league vowed it would not weaken the personal conduct policy, and that it needed to be strengthened. The owners’ paternalistic fixation with policing players led to the stifling of a voice that needed to be heard, and Goodell enabled it.
Pash’s letter suggested Goodell would consider the possibility of allowing someone other than him dictate suspensions while remaining in charge of appeals, and indeed there is now a committee that will handle suspensions. But again, look at that committee: Instead of the owners’ frontman deciding discipline, it’s the owners themselves. What really changed?
The matter of who decides punishment is less important than the system in place and how it is created. And the NFL has shown, despite Goodell’s promise to the contrary, that it has no intention in giving up any control of the system.
The NFL so far has withstood its look-the-other-way approach to concussions, the sloppiness of Bountygate and the preposterous circus of a referee strike. It remains a social and sporting behemoth that appears to be immune to crisis, scandal and even the neglect of broken former employees. The financial success in the face of crisis has only emboldened Goodell and the owners he represents. They still think they can get away with it and call it change.
The way to arrive at meaningful, beneficial change is to allow someone outside of the league office a say, to begin to repair an utterly broken relationship between the league and players. Superficial changes to old policies ensures only the inevitability of another disciplinary thicket. Whether Goodell can’t relinquish control personally or the owners who employ him refuse to stop strong-arming players, the window-dressing of a unilateral conduct policy is conduct detrimental to the league.