The NFL doesn’t really have a personal conduct policy. It has an “ensure our players don’t scare the customers” policy. Commissioner Roger Goodell can proclaim all he wants that his far-reaching disciplinary power includes everyone in the league, but in practice, his most notorious protect-the-shield edict is meant to inspire public confidence that, off the field, these aggressive and oversize athletes can be tamed.
It’s an uneasy thought, this notion of control and the complex reasons for it, especially when you consider the league is predominantly African American. No sports league protects its money quite like the NFL. So Goodell has his kangaroo court, and it exists to manipulate the perception of the NFL. The goal isn’t justice. It isn’t to inspire rehabilitation. It isn’t even about discipline, really. When players get in trouble, every case comes down to how explosive the story is, and Goodell will punish as much or as little as he desires based on public opinion.
It makes Roger Goodell, NFL disciplinarian, the most overhyped, self-important concept in modern NFL history. It’s just a role he plays, with diminishing passion as the years pass (example: his recent cop-out on the Tyreek Hill child abuse allegation). For proof of the farce, watch carefully what happens — or doesn’t happen — in the messy solicitation case of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
Goodell has made it clear this offseason: He will not prematurely punish Kraft, who faces two misdemeanor charges for allegedly paying for sexual services at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Fla. From the beginning, it was unlikely Kraft would serve any jail time for being busted in a sting operation. But since being charged in February, he has put together a superstar legal team anyway, and his lawyers have worked to expose flaws in a sloppy police investigation and to make video of Kraft’s alleged misconduct inadmissible in court.
The Kraft trial has been postponed indefinitely. Prosecutors are appealing a judge’s decision that prevents them from using the secretly recorded videos. Without that evidence, there doesn’t appear to be much of a legal case against Kraft.
In the Goodell kangaroo court, several players have been suspended despite avoiding legal trouble. The conduct policy includes language about “conduct detrimental to the integrity and public confidence” in the league. It also says, “We must endeavor at all times to be people of high character; we must show respect for others inside and outside our workplace; and we must strive to conduct ourselves in ways that favorably reflect on ourselves, our teams, the communities we represent, and the NFL.”
The policy is loose enough that Goodell could punish Kraft simply for putting himself in such a shameful situation. Kraft pleaded not guilty, but he also apologized for the incident in March, saying, “I am truly sorry. I know I have hurt and disappointed my family, my close friends, my co-workers, our fans and many others who rightfully hold me to a higher standard.”
Goodell, who is essentially an employee of the league’s owners, will wait out the case. It could take more than a year for legal finality, which buys time for the public to stop caring.
“When we get all the information, we’ll make determinations,” Goodell said in May. “I’m not going to speculate on where we are or my views on anything. Until we get all the information, we’re not to make any discussions or any comments about that. The personal conduct policy is my responsibility.”
Translation: He doesn’t have the spine to challenge Kraft. Not this time. Not after such an embarrassing incident. Sure, Goodell and Kraft went at it during the ridiculous Deflategate, and Kraft ended up paying a $1 million fine. But this is different. Kraft is 78 now, and considering the six Super Bowls the Patriots have won and his status as one of the NFL’s most influential owners, his contributions to the game merit Hall of Fame induction.
In court, Kraft isn’t fighting to stay out of jail because the offense, no matter how awful morally, is considered minor. He is fighting to make sure no one sees that video. He is fighting to keep his hopes alive of making a speech in Canton, Ohio. If Goodell were to punish him and, in effect, admonish his morality, it could hinder Kraft realizing his last great dream in life.
Goodell won’t do that to Kraft, not unless someone leaks that video. Goodell won’t do it because he doesn’t need to do so. Kraft was among the owners who approved Goodell’s recent $200 million extension. And while Kraft is a high-profile owner, his visibility doesn’t come close to a star player, which makes a suspension futile. Fine him? It is hard to dent a billionaire’s wallet without levying an unprecedented penalty. My guess is this ends with Kraft, after winning in court and avoiding league punishment, making a donation to an organization that fights human trafficking. He also might champion rights to privacy in some way.
Or he could walk away arrogantly and do nothing. It likely will be his prerogative. He seems to have too much money and influence to be denied.
On the other hand, Goodell has more credibility to lose. His record as a disciplinarian is already laughable. Now it will be perceived that he let an owner skate in a situation that would have warranted something more punitive for a player who had made such negative news.
Maybe that will inspire some outrage. Maybe it won’t.
Here’s hoping the hypocrisy stands out, however. There is no personal conduct policy for every NFL employee. It’s a player conduct policy, and Goodell has the permission to use it however he chooses. If there’s any good that can come from Kraft’s messy incident, greater scrutiny of Goodell’s inconsistent authority would be a worthwhile consolation.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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