“It’s certainly an issue that needs discussion,” said one of those people with knowledge of those owners’ views, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “Is there a way to do this better? If not, should the NFL even be in the investigative business?”
Several people close to the situation described the number of owners with such heightened concerns as relatively small but growing. The owners are said to be supportive of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and his efforts to address the issue of domestic violence committed by players and other league employees. The owners’ concerns are focused on the league’s investigative procedures rather than on Goodell, according to those familiar with the situation.
A high-ranking official with one NFL team said he doesn’t believe that there is a large number of owners with major concerns but acknowledged there likely “are a few,” perhaps led by the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, who has expressed dissatisfaction with the league’s investigation of Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. That official said he had “not heard many people talking about it” and does not believe there is a specific agenda item on that topic at next Wednesday’s regularly scheduled NFL owners’ meeting in Dallas.
The Cowboys declined to make Jones available for an interview this week, saying he had no further comment beyond remarks he made in a radio interview early in the week. Jones said in that interview that he’s “keeping a very close eye” on the Hunt case and has “a very keen interest in how this plays out.”
Jones also said: “It’s a very challenging area of what we’re about …. Everyone has zero tolerance for domestic abuse.”
Jones said last December at an owners’ meeting, also in Dallas, that there was a need for reform of the NFL’s disciplinary and investigative procedures.
“I wouldn’t get specific,” Jones said then. “But we all know that we’ve had problematic aspects to our discipline, our investigations. We all know that those have been there.” Jones was displeased with the league’s investigation in the case of Elliott, who served a six-game suspension without pay last season imposed by the NFL under its personal conduct policy. The NFL Players Association challenged Elliott’s suspension in federal court and managed to have implementation of it delayed. But the NFL prevailed on appeal and enforced the suspension in full, the latest courtroom victory for the league that reinforced Goodell’s authority in player discipline.
Still, the string of controversies that have resulted from Goodell’s disciplinary rulings, the NFLPA’s repeated challenges of them and the resulting scrutiny of the league’s investigations seem to have left some owners weary.
The 2018 NFL season had been marked by little turbulence, compelling on-field play and increased TV viewership until its recent tumult. Hunt was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list by the NFL and released by the Chiefs last week after video obtained by TMZ showed him shoving and kicking a woman in a February incident at a Cleveland hotel. That came days after the Washington Redskins’ decision to claim linebacker Reuben Foster off waivers, following his release by the San Francisco 49ers after he was arrested in Tampa on a domestic violence charge.
The league and players’ union have had previous deliberations about the possibility of revamping the sport’s system of player discipline and are likely to return to the subject when they negotiate their next collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA runs through the 2020 season.
“That’s something that I’m sure will come up in the context of the next collective bargaining agreement,” Goodell said at the owners’ meeting last December. “But we’ve always been willing to consider that.”
It’s not clear if the group of owners with current concerns will be able to prompt the league and other owners to make any changes before then. It’s not even known if those owners can prompt a serious conversation on the topic at next week’s meeting.
In the Hunt case, the league made unsuccessful attempts to obtain the video and to interview women involved in the February incident, a person familiar with the NFL’s investigation has said. The league also has been criticized for failing to question Hunt about the incident. The Chiefs did question him and said they released him because the video showed Hunt had not been truthful about what occurred.
Foster is on paid leave on the commissioner’s exempt list, and he and Hunt are facing potential unpaid suspensions by the NFL under the personal conduct policy. Hunt has not been charged with a crime.
League officials have publicly acknowledged the obstacles that the NFL, as an employer that lacks subpoena power, faces in conducting such investigations. One person familiar with the league’s inner workings said last week that those involved in formulating the revised policy were aware of those limitations and prospective difficulties from the outset and were warned that the NFL needed to be fully committed to its approach.
But the NFL has stopped short of utilizing certain tactics, such as paying to obtain surveillance videos. It’s not clear if those owners with current concerns about the league’s investigations would favor the NFL paying for such videos to avoid the backlash that has accompanied having them later released to the public.