As Commissioner Roger Goodell prepares to re-issue discipline against four players whose suspensions were vacated last month, the good news is that Goodell finally has gotten more clarity as to what he can and can’t do.
The bad news is that Goodell finally has gotten more clarity as to what he can and can’t do.
Four weeks ago today, an internal appeals panel created by the 2011 labor deal vacated the bounty suspensions imposed against four players because it wasn’t sufficiently clear that Commissioner Roger Goodell remained within his jurisdiction to impose discipline for conduct detrimental to the game. The summary ruling from the appeals panel promised that a full, written opinion would be generated.
The full, written opinion was issued today, and PFT has obtained a copy. While the summary ruling created the impression that the Commissioner would be able to merely re-write the suspension letters, the full-blown opinion seems to create a stiffer challenge for the league.
The appeals panel has concluded that the portion of the Saints’ pay-for-performance/bounty program “that provided for undisclosed payments to players, whether for legitimate or illegitimate plays, falls within the explicit terms of Article 14 [of the CBA] and lies within the [System Arbitrator's] exclusive jurisdiction.” In English (or something close to it), this means that, if Goodell imposes any discipline for funding the pool or receiving money from the pool, he will be acting beyond his jurisdiction to impose discipline for conduct detrimental to the game.
The line ultimately is drawn by the appeals panel “between agreeing to injure other players and the agreement to participate in an undisclosed compensation arrangement.” As a practical matter, that will be a difficult line for the Commissioner to not cross.
When removing the money from the equation, the players agreed to do what they already had an incentive to do — play the game aggressively and effectively, to the point of creating turnovers, sacks, big plays, and preventing opponents from continuing via clean, legal hits.
Is it conduct detrimental to the game to want to hit an opponent so hard (cleanly and legally) that it knocks him out of the game? Is it conduct detrimental to the game to verbalize that desire? In this case, the natural incentive to hit the opponent hard enough (cleanly and legally) to prevent him from continuing became conduct detrimental once a price tag was attached to the successful achievement of that goal.
How can the NFL separate the payment from the intent and still show conduct detrimental to the game, when the underlying conduct is part of a common incentive when playing football, whether it’s the late Al Davis imploring violence against the quarterback or Rex Ryan breaking out the “hot sauce” for something other than chicken wings?
When re-drafting the letters, it won’t be an easy exercise in verbal and mental gymnastics for the league’s lawyers, especially since the punishment initially flowed from the league’s bounty rules, which by their very nature are premised on money changing hands.
That’s especially the case as to Browns linebacker Scott Fujita and Saints defensive end Will Smith, who were suspended for funding the pool of money. While Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma could be punished for allegedly urging injury to opposing quarterbacks and free-agent defensive end Anthony Hargrove could be punished for allegedly lying to the league when the situation was first investigated in 2010, the entire situation takes on a different feel when stripping the money out of the equation, which the Commissioner must do in order to avoid having the suspensions vacated, again.
At some point, the NFL’s best course of action may be to punt.