Who are the league members? The league's owners, of course, and the collective business interests of their NFL franchises.
Those owners will have to ask themselves some hard questions this week. One of their own, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, was arrested under suspicion of driving under the influence, and possessing a controlled substance. Per Bill McCleery of The Indianapolis Star, Irsay now faces preliminary charges on four felony offenses.
Colts spokesperson Avis Roper released a statement to McCleary and others straight from the crisis-management playbook: "We are gathering information at this time regarding last night's incident involving Jim Irsay," Roper said. "We will issue additional statements when the facts are sorted and we are aware of the next steps to this process."
The other 31 primary owners, and Goodell, now have a very tough decision to make: How do they handle this situation in a way that serves their collective interest as a league, while also being fair to everyone else subject to the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy?
A Prison of His Own Devising
History will debate whether the mid-2000s rash of NFL player arrests were reality or perception, but Goodell's unilateral institution of the Personal Conduct Policy was his first major act as commissioner—and it will be a major part of his legacy no matter what else he accomplishes, or how long he serves.
How Goodell would deal with non-player misconduct didn't remain a question for long. In 2007, Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson was suspended five games for using a banned substance. He told Larry Weisman of USA Today the league told him "people in authority" are held "in higher regard than people on the field."
Goodell was tested further when in 2010, Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand pled guilty to charges of driving while impaired. Lewand was suspended for 30 days and fined $100,000, per the late Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
"You occupy a special position of responsibility and trust," Goodell wrote to Lewand. "As we have discussed, those who occupy leadership positions are held to a higher standard of conduct that exceeds what is ordinarily expected of players or member of the general public."
A player with a first-time alcohol-related arrest would be subject to a fine of one-half of a game check (not to exceed $50,000), per Kowalski, but would not be subject to suspension. As Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White tweeted in response to Irsay's arrest, players are watching to make Irsay isn't allowed to keep conducting business as usual:
In a subsequent article, Kowalski argued Lewand's punishment was unfair. Not only did Kowalski find it was the first time an NFL employee had been suspended for a first-time alcohol-related offense, Lewand's punishment was much harsher than those levied for so-called "Spygate" controversy—which threatened the league's competitive integrity.
Yet, Goodell had no choice.
He had to avoid appearance of a double standard for NFL management and NFL labor. The players would rightly be incensed if Lewand were able to skate by with a lesser (or equal) punishment than they'd be subject to.
In 2013, when the Denver Broncos had two of their top executives arrested for similar drunk-driving incidents less than a month apart, team president John Elway followed the precedent, suspending them both for a month without pay.
Per Mike Klis of The Denver Post, the league thought the punishments appropriate, and saw fit to take no further action.
"These guys made bad mistakes, they know that," Elway told Klis.
What Irsay did is not a mistake. It's part of a long, troubling pattern of behavior with substance abuse and treatment, as McCleery wrote.
Justice and Compassion
Roger Goodell's hands are tied again.
He's set a precedent: The further up the chain of command a team employee is, the harsher their punishment must be for personal-conduct violations. Never before has an owner violated this policy, so Irsay must be held to the highest possible standard; his punishment must be harsher than any first-time policy violator.
Yet, as Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star reports, Irsay has been battling substance abuse and addiction for many years, to the ongoing dismay and worry of Colts insiders.
"He's a sick, sick man,'' one source told Kravitz. "He desperately needs help."
Kravitz reports the team has been trying for years to get Irsay in treatment, or at the very least a driver. As the man in charge, however, the team's power to help him was limited. Irsay has been "in and out of rehab," according to Kravitz, but clearly he hasn't heard the "wake-up call."
It's time for Goodell and the league's 31 other owners to keep Irsay from hitting the snooze button.
Suspending Irsay in the middle of the summer—or even during the season—has little impact on Irsay personally, or the Colts organization. Taking $100,000 or more out of the pocket of a billionaire has no impact either.
It's time for his colleagues to take away something that means much more to him, something that can truly affect change in his life: the Colts.
Under the NFL bylaws (Article VIII, section 13(B)), whenever the commissioner determines the appropriate punishment is greater than what he's empowered to impose, he can recommend to the NFL's executive committee all sorts of punishments, from declaring a player a free agent to dissolving and liquidating the team.
One of the options laid out in the bylaws is forcing a league member to sell his or her interest in the team within 120 days.
In 2012, Irsay's three daughters—Carlie, Casey and Kalen—were promoted to the title of Owner/Vice Chairman, according to the team's official site, and were hailed as "the next generation of Colts ownership."
Without intimate knowledge of the Irsay family finances, or the Colts' internal books, it's reasonable to speculate that Carlie, Casey and Kalen wouldn't have the assets to literally buy their father out. However, the bylaws also state that the commissioner can recommend "other or additional punishment or discipline as the Commissioner may decide."
If Roger Goodell wants to do what's best for the NFL, he must act decisively in response to an owner spiraling out of control, threatening his own life and the lives of others.
He must also act with compassion, offering Irsay the best opportunity to recover and live a stable, fulfilling life.
He must not punish the other members of the Irsay family, who surely have been suffering in silence as their patriarch fights for his life—or the innocent Colts staffers, coaches, players and fans who've supported the team (and its eccentric owner) through thick and thin.
He must recommend to the other owners that Irsay's interest in the Colts be divested from him, and transferred equally to his three daughters.
This is drastic action—but these are dire circumstances.
A further reading of the NFL bylaws reveal an almost paranoid standard of behavior for league owners. The early NFL owners knew that anything threatening the integrity of the sport would be anathema: collusion, gambling and conflicts of interest could all quickly bring down the league, reducing the value of their investments to nothing.
As Sports on Earth's Mike Tanier wrote, Irsay's public eccentrism has been written off as charming and endearing—even though his father's battles with substance abuse led to volatile outbursts and "random firings (rescinded the next morning) after losses."
With Irsay frequently inserting himself into the public dealings of the Colts, sometimes breaking news on Twitter, he's as much of the public face of the franchise as Jerry Jones is of the Dallas Cowboys. As such, he simply can't be allowed to keep doing these things.
Worse yet, we don't know anything of the private dealings—the day-to-day reality of the people who must report to, and work under, Irsay. A vivacious, mercurial man spiraling down the drain of addiction can't be a pleasant, or effective, leader.
The NFL has never been more aggressive about marketing itself to non-traditional fans. Growing the fanbase to women, children, and international markets are all critical parts of the NFL's future. Allowing an owner to behave so recklessly while he literally withers away from disease destabilizes the league and imperils those plans.
Ultimately, Irsay's struggles and flaws affect not only him, but everyone in the Colts organization—and all of Irsay's 31 business partners.
At least 20 other owners must agree to this course of action for it to come about, but Goodell must use every ounce of his power and influence to make it happen.
If he fails to act in this, or a similar way, it's hard to see how history will remember him well, as either a disciplinarian or a human being.
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