The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Little optimism remains over possible reforms to Roger Goodell’s disciplinary role

NFL, union negotiated since last year on Commissioner Roger Goodell’r role in player discipline. (Luis M. Alvarez/AP Photo)

The once-promising negotiations between the NFL and NFL Players Association over Commissioner Roger Goodell’s role in the sport’s system of player discipline have stalled indefinitely, with no resumption or resolution currently in sight.

In the wake of an arbitrator-issued ruling last weekend on an NLFPA grievance filed over the league’s revised personal conduct policy for players, optimism has dimmed considerably within the sport about the prospects of a compromise in the foreseeable future.

“There is nothing going on now in terms of negotiations,” one person with knowledge of the discussions said. “I don’t know if and when they will resume.”

That view was echoed by others familiar with the negotiations, including one who said there is “not really much to say here. We are where we are…. [It] seems like [there’s] nothing to talk about until 2020.”

NFL tells teams Roger Goodell’s disciplinary authority ‘reconfirmed and strengthened’ by arbitration ruling

The current collective bargaining agreement between the league and players’ union runs through the 2020 season. The union has vowed not to agree to a new CBA that does not address the issue to the players’ satisfaction.

The recent negotiations were an attempt to deal with the matter before then, either as part of an extension of the CBA or as a separate agreement. The league and union had been negotiating since late last year about potential changes to the player-discipline system and Goodell’s authority to resolve players’ appeals of NFL-imposed penalties.

The union is seeking independent arbitration of appeals by players of disciplinary measures taken by the league under the personal conduct policy and in cases involving the integrity-of-the-game rules. Goodell currently is empowered to resolve such appeals under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the league and union.

The negotiations came about after the union successfully challenged disciplinary steps taken by the league in cases involving Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy under the personal conduct policy.

In addition, a federal judge last year overturned the NFL’s four-game Deflategate suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The league’s appeal of that ruling is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Some NFL owners seemed willing at one point to consider reducing Goodell’s role in the disciplinary process to protect him and the league from further courtroom challenges and, potentially, setbacks. But that dynamic seemingly has changed.

Many courtroom observers believed that Brady’s attorney, Jeffrey Kessler, was questioned more sharply by the appeals-court judges than NFL lawyer Paul Clement during a hearing on the league’s appeal, leading to speculation that the NFL might prevail. Meanwhile, the league interpreted last weekend’s arbitration ruling as affirming Goodell’s disciplinary powers.

It is not clear if the negotiations can be revived. They once appeared to be headed in a positive direction.

DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, said during an interview in November that the league and union were having “the right conversations” toward a possible player-discipline accord.

“I never talk about collective bargaining during the process,” Smith said then. “I think the only good news is that we continue to talk. We continue to bargain. … One person’s talks is another person’s bargaining is another person’s negotiations. I mean, look, to make it as simple as possible: I think it’s positive that we’re having the right conversations.”

Smith said during Super Bowl week in February he was “cautiously optimistic” a deal was within reach.

“We have had a number of conversations and those conversations are ongoing,” Smith said at the union’s annual news conference four days before the Super Bowl. “I’m cautiously optimistic that we can reach a resolution on a number of those issues. And I think sort of the frame continues to be the same. We believe that a collectively bargained change to the system is good for everyone.

“And if we’re unable to reach a change, then our job as a union is to simply protect the player and fight the cases as we’ve done in the past. Look, at the end of the day it gives nobody here a tremendous amount of pleasure gearing up for another court battle.”

A person with knowledge of the situation said later in February that the league and union were making “slow progress” in the talks, adding that a deal was not imminent but expressing the belief that the two sides probably “will get there eventually.”

Since then, however, negotiations have unraveled. Goodell said at the annual league meeting last month in Boca Raton, Fla., that a resolution was not close.

“If we could find a better discipline system, let’s do it,” Goodell said then. “We are not close to an agreement by any stretch of the imagination on any changes to that as it relates to a third party or other individuals making those decisions. But we are open to them. We will continue to have that dialogue directly with the union and if we can come up with a better system, we’ll announce it at that point.”

According to a report last month by ESPN, Smith sent an e-mail to players on the union’s executive committee saying the league had “officially communicated a dramatic change of course” in the talks and calling it “a massive step backwards from where negotiations stood several weeks ago.”

Last weekend, arbitrator Jonathan Marks ruled that the NFL’s policy of placing players on paid leave via the commissioner’s exempt list with cases pending under the personal conduct policy was valid. The NFLPA had challenged that policy with a grievance filed in January 2015, the month after NFL owners ratified the league’s revamped personal conduct policy.

Peterson, the prominent running back for the Minnesota Vikings, and Hardy, a defensive end then with the Carolina Panthers, spent most of the 2014 season on the exempt list, being paid by their teams not to play with legal cases pending.

The arbitrator’s ruling came after the league and union failed to settle the grievance as part of their player-discipline negotiations.

“As part of those negotiations, we offered to make changes in the Personal Conduct Policy that would have benefitted players in ways that the union could not obtain from the Arbitrator,” league counsel Jeff Pash wrote in a weekend memo to the 32 NFL teams. “Those proposals included giving suspended players credit for a substantial portion of the time spent on the Exempt List (so-called ‘time served’), refraining from imposing discipline until a player’s underlying criminal case was resolved, and expanding the scope of permitted activities and club contact for suspended players.

“The union elected to terminate negotiations because we would not agree to fundamentally limit the Commissioner’s authority by using third-party appeal officers in all disciplinary matters. The result is that players have obtained very little from the grievance – certainly much less than was available as part of a negotiated resolution – and the authority of the Commissioner has been reconfirmed and strengthened.”

Pash’s memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post and other media organizations, said that the arbitration decision “upholds the new [personal conduct] Policy in all material respects.” The memo by Pash told the teams that the ruling “recognizes and confirms the broad authority tha‎t the Commissioner has to define and impose discipline for conduct detrimental.”