The ongoing rash of player arrests has caused some to argue that the situation demonstrates the importance of Commissioner Roger Goodell’s broad powers over player conduct.
Others (or, at a minimum, I) think that there’s no link between the arrests and the procedures for imposing discipline. And that, regardless of the procedures, the current system clearly isn’t working. And that to the extent players don’t believe a fair system is in place for processing player discipline, it will be difficult if not impossible to get players to buy in completely to the league’s overall efforts to monitor and punish player behavior away from the field.
Bills union representative George Wilson recently touched on that last point, explaining to Zig Fracassi and Gil Brandt of SiriusXM NFL Radio (via Tim Graham of the Buffalo News) that players “don’t figure it’s a just system when you’re appealing to the same judge who issued out the discipline.”
“How many judges do you know are going to overturn a ruling that they made?” Wilson said. “They’re not going to do that. It makes them look incompetent.”
Wilson then made the NFLPA look incompetent by suggesting that he was led to believe when voting for the new CBA that real changes to Goodell’s judge/jury/executioner powers would be made.
“The information I received and the information I had when I placed my vote was that on player discipline, a mediator will be brought in on anything over a $50,000 fine,” Wilson said. “That was my understanding and why I voted in favor of the CBA because I felt like anything over $50,000 that the Players’ Association along with a mediator would be brought in to hash out and resolve the matter.
“Whereas now, it seems as if we’re still under the same system that’s been in place since Commissioner Goodell has taken over as commissioner.”
If that happened, that’s a real problem. But it wasn’t a universal misunderstanding. Steelers representaive Ryan Clark definitely wasn’t under that impression. And his team unanimously voted against the new labor deal last year due in large part of Goodell’s powers.
All that said, Goodell’s powers aren’t unlimited. Punishment for on-field violations continues to be reviewed by Art Shell or Ted Cottrell, who have been jointly appointed and who are jointly compensated by the NFL and the NFLPA. As to off-field issues, including conduct detrimental to the game, personal-conduct policy violations, substance-abuse policy violations, and steroids/banned substances issues, Goodell has full power.
And Goodell (or one of his designees) will from time to time reverse an initial decision. It happened last year, after Steelers safety Troy Polamalu was fined for using a cell phone to call his wife after leaving a game with “concussion-like symptoms.” It has happened many times with drug and steroids appeals that remaining fully confidential while pending. It likely will happen again.
But it shouldn’t have to happen. Goodell shouldn’t have full power over these issues. If he’d be willing to surrender that control to a reliable and fair third party, the players could be more inclined to embrace the league’s ongoing efforts to deal with the small percentage of players who are making all of them look bad.