The NFL Needs Its Own Supreme Court to Clean Up Its Act

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 16, 2014

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We, the people who support the NFL with our wallets, eyeballs, affection and devotion, hold these truths to be self-evident: 

The NFL’s Problems Are Not Going Away

The doubts and distrust provoked by the continued mishandling of the Ray Rice domestic assault case, compounded by Adrian Peterson’s child abuse charges and a host of other problems, cannot be buried beneath an avalanche of touchdown highlights.

They can't be whisked under the table by one of commissioner Roger Goodell’s bureaucratic shell games.

The NFL Is Not Going Away

The league will not close shop, and Goodell will neither be impeached nor volunteer to be locked up so we can throw rotten vegetables at him. Even if NFL owners do oust Goodell, they will likely replace him with a similar executive, one who will say the right things while keeping both eyes on the bottom line and none on any inconvenient evidence.

That will do no one any good.

Therefore, in order to form a more perfect union between the NFL and a nation that adores football, we must stop reacting emotionally, quit stumping for simple solutions and chart a new course. We must ordain and establish a new "due process" for investigating and disciplining players who commit violent and unconscionable crimes, and for addressing executives who may cover up those crimes (or commit ones of their own).

September 4, 2014; Seattle, WA, USA; NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines before the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The NFL needs transparency. The NFL needs checks and balances. The NFL needs independent arbiters. The NFL needs its own Supreme Court.

Perhaps "Supreme Court" is too dramatic and loaded a term. Let’s call it a tribunal: a three-person blue-ribbon panel with sweeping powers to levy or adjust suspensions, interpret league policies, countermand or reprimand the commissioner and promote the general football welfare.

This tribunal will be appointed by Congress itself; only Congress has the clout to impose such a drastic change on Goodell and the powerful NFL owners.

Legislators are already calling for congressional hearings on Goodell’s actions in the Ray Rice affair. It’s just a small step further for lawmakers to select and empower three individuals with experience, character and judgment to wield disciplinary authority over one of America’s most visible industries.

The tribunal must consist of well-known public figures of high standing; former lawmakers are perfect for the task. Here are some nominations for Congress to consider:

Michael Bloomberg

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 10:  New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at a press conference regarding Super Bowl XLVIII, which New York and New Jersey will host at MetLife Stadium on February 2, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on October 10, 2013
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Former mayor of New York City and current billionaire and lobbyist who has worked with the NFL on numerous charitable initiatives in the past.

Condoleezza Rice

AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 13:  Member Condoleezza Rice looks on during the Green Jacket Presentation during the final round of the 2014 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 13, 2014 in Augusta, Georgia.  (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)
David Cannon/Getty Images

Former Secretary of State and current Stanford professor, an experienced diplomat and an avid sports fan. Rice is already being mentioned as a successor to Goodell.

Lynn Swann

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

NFL Hall of Famer, former chairman of President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, one-time Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate.


That’s as balanced a ticket as we can hope for: liberals and conservatives (with no hardliners), men and women, people of various creeds and colors, experts on domestic, international and football affairs. We can quibble with some of their political opinions but not with their get-tough, get-it-done, get-real attitudes.

Bloomberg, Rice and Swann (or the three political figures of your choice) have many other responsibilities and interests, but serving on the tribunal will not be a full-time job. The tribunal will meet for two days per month, then for a two-week session in the offseason. 

It will be like NFL judiciary equivalent of the National Guard.

The monthly meetings will be used to adjudicate minor issues. The two-week session will cover major cases and broad revisions of policy. Emergency sessions can be called in extreme situations; an emergency session of a powerful team of legal/ethical problem-solvers sounds lovely right about now.

Our tribunal will not work cheap, and we will not ask it to. St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn just received $41.2 million guaranteed; the NFL can afford a generous stipend for three Condi-caliber professionals.

Lawmakers could simply attach a rider onto all future stadium proposals to foot the bill: If owners want luxury boxes, they must pay for the tribunal. No justice, no suites.

September 14, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; An Oakland Raiders fan holds a sign for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after the game against the Houston Texans at O.co Coliseum. The Texans defeated the Raiders 30-14. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Savvy politicos would figure out quickly that serving on the tribunal brings added prestige to their other endeavors: Clean up the NFL, and it can help you clean up at special-interest fundraisers. Ex-senators and retired judges will want to serve on the tribunal.

Here are the bylaws under which the tribunal shall operate:

When a player, coach, executive or owner is arrested and charged with a severe violent crime—aggravated assault, domestic abuse, child abuse, serious weapon offenses, vehicular homicide and so on—that individual is immediately suspended until the next meeting of the tribunal.

The commissioner’s office can still handle DUIs, performance-enhancers and ordinary dust-ups at the nightclub. But for major offenders, the automatic-trigger suspension becomes part of "due process," eliminating one of the biggest problems (and most convenient excuses) the NFL faces right now.

The NFL Players Association will have something to say about this new immediate suspension policy. Here’s a compromise: The league will stop testing for marijuana and table the 18-game season until the next collective bargaining agreement in exchange for this new policy.

No one cares about pot smoking—DUI is still covered—and fans don’t want an 18-game season. We want a 16-game season with zero moral dilemmas about whose jersey we wear to the games. Fair compromise? Thought so.

The player (or coach or owner, but let’s simplify) can present evidence and appeal his suspension at the tribunal meeting. The NFLPA can also raise any objections or make an appeal.

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 7: Adrian Peterson #28 of the Minnesota Vikings looks on from the sideline during a game against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on September 7, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri.  The Vikings beat the Rams 34-6.  (Photo by
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

After weighing the evidence, the tribunal has the power to do many things. It can lift the suspension, impose a final sentence, retain the suspension indefinitely until there is a jury trial or temporarily lift a suspension until the real legal system makes a decision.

For thorny cases, the tribunal can table discussions until its two-week offseason session, either suspending the player or allowing him to return in the interim, based on the counsel’s judgment. All decisions are made by a simple 2-to-1 majority.

If an owner or executive—including the commissioner—is credibly accused of serious abuses of power (the Rice cover-up, a Donald Sterling-type situation), it can trigger a special session of the tribunal.

The tribunal can do everything to owners and executives that it can do to players and coaches; it can also levy heavy fines and administer other corporate-level penalties. In extreme cases, it can order the sale of a team or the resignation of a powerful league official.

We have trusted the people on our tribunal with national and civil security. We can trust them with these responsibilities.

The tribunal will have its own investigative team with jurisdictional power over and above the NFL’s investigators. A Chief Investigating Officer shall be appointed: Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue is a worthy choice.

Nick Wass/Associated Press

The CIO will report directly to the tribunal, not the commissioner. The results of a CIO inquiry will be made public at the end of the investigation but before the tribunal’s ruling, with the usual safeguards to ensure privacy and sensitivity (withholding names of witnesses, etc.).

This will be no different than a prosecutor presenting a case in open court.

When the tribunal makes a decision on a major case, it will publish an explanation of the ruling. That explanation will be used as a guiding principle for other cases that are similar in nature. If a tribunal decision is not unanimous, the dissenting member will publish a minority report to illuminate and clarify any controversial judgments.

Instead of public relations butt-covering, the players, union, media and fans will get a sober, technical explanation of the real issues underlying a case, plus guidance on how to proceed with future cases.

It’s an elegant system. There is an appeal process for the player and the union. The CIO reports and opinion papers provide transparency. There are checks and balances. The tribunal operates outside the spheres of influence of the commissioner, but its authority is limited.

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04:  NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (R) walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Condoleezza Rice won’t redefine roughing the passer. Michael Bloomberg will not influence PED policies. Lynn Swann will not have an impact on television or sponsorship deals. The tribunal adjudicates violent crimes and flagrant abuses of power. That is all.

The tribunal concept may sound a little extravagant and far-fetched, but the NFL needs it, or something like it. The tribunal represents a radical change in the way NFL leadership thinks of itself and its role within the nation at large. That radical change is absolutely necessary.

The NFL has quasi-governmental powers, expectations and responsibilities. It must start acting like a government, not an old boys' social club.

The NFL oligarchy must become more of a democracy. It’s essential to ensure the blessings of football tranquility, to ourselves and our posterity.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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