When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell metes out punishment on several recent violations of the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy, he'll be following, setting or ignoring important precedents that will shape not only the NFL's handling of off-field incidents for years to come, but his own legacy.
Goodell has already overseen some huge moments in NFL history: the lockout and resultant collective bargaining agreement, the explosion of league media, a massive round of stadium building, the concussion controversy and a host of attendant rules changes.
There are plenty of big changes on the horizon: expanded playoffs, a longer regular season, a stadium in Los Angeles and another round of expansion—possibly into other countries.
Yet of all these, the first impact Goodell made on the NFL landscape might be the one he's remembered for. He instituted a new personal conduct policy, installing himself as judge, jury and executioner—not to mention appeals court.
Responding to an NFL crime wave that seemed to have a different player in handcuffs (and headlines) every week, Goodell sent a strong message to the rest of the league when he slapped serial offender Adam Jones with a one-year suspension.
After a few more high-profile crimes and punishments, the message seemed to be heard, and NFL arrest rates dropped.
But is Goodell's track record as a Solomonic justice-dispenser secure? Is the personal conduct policy working? Are players getting a fair shake—and are owners and executives getting a free pass?
The Letter of the Law
The plain text of the policy is available at the NFL's labor blog. It's pretty straightforward:
All persons associated with the NFL are required to avoid “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League.” This requirement applies to players, coaches, other team employees, owners, game officials and all others privileged to work in the National Football League.
For many years, it has been well understood that rules promoting lawful, ethical, and
responsible conduct serve the interests of the League, its players, and fans. Illegal or
irresponsible conduct does more than simply tarnish the offender. It puts innocent people at risk, sullies the reputation of others involved in the game, and undermines public respect and support for the NFL.
That's the two-paragraph introduction, which doubles as a mission statement. Above all else, Goodell is in charge of fostering public support for the NFL. You can't sell football tickets, jerseys, television packages or stadium-financing taxes to an audience revolted by the conduct of the people on the field.
Thus, NFL employees are expected to conform to a standard of conduct "higher" than simply not getting convicted of a crime. They're expected to conduct themselves "in a way that is responsible, promotes the values upon which the League is based, and is lawful."
Players are in violation of the policy if they commit:
- Criminal offenses including, but not limited to, those involving: the use or threat of violence;
domestic violence and other forms of partner abuse; theft and other property crimes; sex
offenses; obstruction or resisting arrest; disorderly conduct; fraud; racketeering; and money
- Criminal offenses relating to steroids and prohibited substances, or substances of abuse;
- Violent or threatening behavior among employees, whether in or outside the workplace;
- Possession of a gun or other weapon in any workplace setting, including but not limited to
stadiums, team facilities, training camp, locker rooms, team planes, buses, parking lots, etc., or
unlawful possession of a weapon outside of the workplace;
- Conduct that imposes inherent danger to the safety and well being of another person; and
- Conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL players.
According to the policy, when a league employee is found to fall short of this standard, it begins a process about which little is publicly known. The NFL declined to expound upon the process beyond the plain text of the policy; at the time of this writing, the NFL Players Association has not responded to a request for comment.
The first step might be the most interesting: Employees found in violation will "generally" be required to undergo a clinical evaluation. Who performs this evaluation? What are the criteria? How does the NFL use this information? Who, besides presumably Goodell, even sees it?
Then, if warranted, the NFL may begin an investigation, "timely advising" the NFLPA if the matter involves players. Information may be gathered from medical, law enforcement and other relevant professionals. The subjects of the investigations will have a chance to, with representation, explain themselves. This raises a host of other, similar questions.
The Miami Herald's Armando Salguero pointed out a raft of contradictions with regard to former Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito. Prior to the bullying incident that earned Incognito an indefinite suspension, he had been accused of sexually assaulting a woman—an incident that went unpunished and largely unreported:
NFL policy demands that clubs report any incident that possibly violates the conduct policy to the NFL. There are no exceptions. The fact no arrest was made or no conviction reached does not relieve the club from the burden of alerting the NFL.
And then, ladies and gentlemen, the ball is in the NFL's court.
So did the Dolphins call the NFL or blow off the policy?
Did the NFL investigate or not?
We have no answers to these questions, and little idea of the reporting and investigation mechanisms that underpin this process. The NFL declined a request to comment on these specifics of the policy's enforcement, and the NFL Players' Association has not yet responded to a similar request.
Presumably, NFL security is heavily involved—but the public sees almost nothing between media reports of an incident and Goodell's binding judgement.
As it says in the policy, "upon conclusion of the investigation, the Commissioner will have full authority to impose discipline as warranted."
The popular perception is that after Goodell dropped the hammer on players like Jones, Tank Johnson and Michael Vick—not to mention Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson—the league fell in line.
Not so, according to work by Bleacher Report AFC East Lead Writer Christopher Hansen. Arrests were more frequent from the institution of the policy to the time of his writing than from the beginning of the decade to the 2007 institution of the policy.
Jason Lisk of The Big Lead, working with the same NFL arrest data collected by U-T San Diego, came to a similar conclusion, but with a striking twist: Total arrests didn't fall after the implementation of the policy, but their timing sure did. Lisk found a 61 percent increase in offseason arrests since 2008.
This reflects American society as a whole: Stricter punishments don't deter criminals from committing crime. Yet if Goodell lets repeat—or especially egregious—offenders go unpunished, he risks a public-relations backlash.
That's why, instead of fixed punishments for specific crimes, Goodell has infinite discretion to fit the punishment to the severity of the offense, the track record of the offender, the on-field impact to the league and anticipated public response.
San Francisco 49ers pass-rusher Aldon Smith might have the easiest case to anticipate.
He's gone on a Jones-esque streak of bad behavior: He was arrested for DUI in January of 2012, and a June house party gone awry that same year resulted in three felony counts of possessing illegal assault weapons. He was again arrested for DUI in September 2013 (picking up another three felony charges, including marijuana possession) and might still face misdemeanor charges for his bizarre April outburst at Los Angeles International Airport.
Since Smith missed five games of the 2013 season to undergo substance-abuse treatment in the wake of the second DUI, he may get credit for "time served" on those charges, as ESPN's John Clayton put it. Even so, the last NFL player to face a suspension for felony weapon-possession charges was Tank Johnson; he was suspended for eight games in June of 2007.
As reported by The Associated Press, here quoted via ESPN.com, Johnson's suspension could go to six games if he avoided further problems with the law and underwent counseling.
"I am looking at it like a six-game suspension, because I definitely am very confident that I'm capable of doing everything that he's asked me to do and more," Johnson said.
Less than a month later, he was pulled over for speeding and suspicion of DUI, per The New York Times, and the Bears released him.
Johnson's gun charge was his second, though; this is Smith's first gun-related incident. Six games, as Clayton reported, with a potential to be reduced, seems like a logical punishment—but Goodell needs to be careful; Smith's crimes all involved the potential for serious harm to others. If he goes easy on Smith, it could backfire the same way it did for Johnson.
If there was a more embarrassing moment for the NFL this offseason than TMZ.com's video of Ray Rice dragging his unconscious then-fiance out of a casino elevator, it was the recent press conference where Janay Rice, now his wife, apologized for her role in it—but Ray Rice didn't apologize to her.
David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun said "without reservation," it was "one of the worst media PR disasters I have ever seen." Rice has a reputation as one of the game's good guys, and people around the league reacted with shock when the video leaked.
It's likely Goodell takes this into account and goes easy on him—but the awful video did too much damage to the NFL's reputation for Rice to not be suspended at least one game, and possibly two.
Finally, we have the great enigma: Jim Irsay.
There's no precedent for an owner violating the personal conduct policy, but there's no question Irsay's arrest for suspicion of DUI and possession of controlled substances did exactly that. The question is, how will he be punished?
The only comparable case was Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand's guilty plea to charges of driving while impaired in 2010. 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 at the time. "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."
If the standards are higher for a team president, they must be even higher for an owner.
Let's put this in perspective: The Indianapolis Star's Tim Evans reported Irsay had $29,000 on him at the time of the arrest—not to mention a cache of pills. A five-figure fine would literally be taking the billionaire's pocket change. Further, what's a "suspension" mean for an owner, and how would anyone enforce it?
Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star reported the capricious Irsay had been spiraling out of control for years. Worse, just as with Irsay's alcoholic father, Colts employees have been living in fear of something going terribly wrong.
In the wake of Kravitz's report I wrote Goodell should strip Irsay of his ownership role. Not like NBA commissioner Adam Silver is divesting Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling of his franchise, just forcing Irsay to turn the Colts over to his three daughters in accordance with the in-place succession plan.
Irsay briefly stepped down from day-to-day operations to seek treatment. Now, the four felonies he was arrested on suspicion of have been reduced to two misdemeanors, per CNN.com, so he's unlikely to face jail time. He's again the public face of the Colts, speaking to media at the owners' meetings and helping make Indianapolis' failed pitch for Super Bowl LII.
Is it all water under the bridge? It had better not be.
The Ultimate Verdict
Goodell's adoption and enforcement of the personal conduct policy was seen as a legacy-defining moment in just his second year on the job.
Seven years later it's clear the policy no longer works, if it ever did. Yet because he's set a precedent, he can't let offenses like these slide—especially not Irsay's.
NFLPA president Eric Winston recently told Sports Illustrated's Peter King:
I can tell you, players are watching. A lot of players are watching. This has been on players’ minds for quite a while. Even if Irsay gets a legal slap on the wrist, Goodell must hand down a punishment much more severe than any first-time offending player has received, and at least as big as Lewand's 30-day suspension and $100,000 fine.
Anything less, and the players would be right to cry foul. Fans wouldn't appreciate a billionaire being let off the hook, either.
Goodell may not take action anywhere near as drastic as I've suggested—but unless he comes up with a serious punishment, he'll certainly be undermining "public faith and support in the NFL."
Then again, Goodell also can't just keep ratcheting up fines and suspensions year after year. At some point, he'll have to come up with a different solution; a new, creative way to minimize these opportunity for off-field misconduct while helping players build their off-field lives.
How Goodell treats these three cases will go a long way toward settling for history whether he was a fair, just leader who did what had to be done for the good of the game, or a capricious tyrant who made the rules up as he went along.
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