The decision of the Patriots to post a lengthy retort to the Ted Wells report triggered speculation that the Patriots possibly violated the NFL Constitution & Bylaws. Last week’s strong statements from owner Robert Kraft followed by the team’s decision to release email communications with the league office regarding leaks and the NFL’s failure to investigate them has raised once again the question of whether the Patriots will face separate discipline for criticizing the league.
Article 9.1(C)(4) of the Constitution & Bylaws states that no team may “[p]ublicly criticize any member club or its management, personnel, employees, or coaches and/or any football official employed by the league.” The provision then requires that “[a]ll complaints or criticism in respect to the foregoing shall be made to the Commissioner only and shall not be publicized directly or indirectly.”
As explained in May, Athis language doesn’t encompass a (supposedly) independent investigator. But does it apply to criticism of the NFL itself?
Maybe. While the language primarily focuses on public criticism of other teams, it also prohibits criticism of “any football official employed by the league.”
At first blush, that encompasses game officials, the folks in the black and white stripes. But the language is broad enough to cover front-office employees — football officials who don’t actually enter the field of play.
So far, the only specific target of the assault from the Patriots has been NFL general counsel Jeff Pash, who arguably is not a football official. But he hasn’t been criticized by the Patriots; instead, the team has merely released emails sent to and received from him.
The Patriots haven’t specifically criticized any football officials by name. But that won’t necessarily stop the I-do-what-I-want mindset from twisting the team’s generalized comments into a finding that they have violated the rule that requires criticism on football matters to be directed privately to the Commissioner and not publicly articulated.
The question is whether the NFL wants to further escalate the situation by pushing back against the Patriots, or whether the league is willing to let the team vent — to an extent. As PFT reported over the weekend, the Patriots have yet to hear from the league in response to the email disclosure, but the Patriots assume that, eventually, a message will arrive.
The league has not yet responded to a request for comment from PFT on the Patriots’ decision to release the emails. The NFL has spoken, however, on a separate provision of the NFL Constitution & Bylaws that many are citing as proof of a violation by the league office.
Here’s Article 9.3(B): “No owner or person holding any interest in a member club, nor any officer, stockholder, director, or partner thereof, nor any officer or employee of the League or a member club thereof, shall enter the dressing room of a game official.”
Under the plain language of this provision, no League employee may enter the dressing room of a league employee. Thus, Article 9.3(B) seems to clearly prevent what happened in this case; as explained at page 66 of the Ted Wells Report, league employees Alberto Riveron, Dan Grossi, Troy Vincent, and Mike Kensil entered the “dressing room of the game officials” for the purposes of testing 11 Patriots footballs and four Colts footballs at halftime of the AFC Championship.
On one level, it’s a technicality. The testing of the footballs needed to be done somewhere; the locker room assigned to the officials made the most sense.
At a deeper level, the message could be that there should be none of these ad hoc investigations or inquiries sparked by league employees while a game is being played. If there are concerns raised by a team during a game, it’s for the game officials — and no one else — to handle it. And if the NFL, via 95 years of never considering what happens inside the bladder of a football under varying temperatures and other weather conditions, suddenly becomes curious about that topic, the way to address it isn’t to have a posse of league employees barge into the locker room of the officials to launch an investigation at halftime but to take the appropriate measures apart from the fragile and finite confines of a given game.
From the league’s perspective, there’s no violation at all — based not on the plain language of the provision but based on the way it has been applied.
“The interpretation has always been that no one should enter the game officials locker room unless on official business,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told PFT by email on Monday morning. “League, club, and security people enter the officials locker rooms at every game to assist them with various functions. It is standard procedure. If the officials have an issue with anyone entering their locker room inappropriately, they would report it to security people at the site or to the head of officiating.
“This isn’t anything new or different. Various people with official game day functions enter the room. For example, your SNF crew goes into officials’ locker room for the standard 90-minute meeting before the game. The meeting includes someone from the broadcasting crew, the officials, officiating observer, the home and away PR reps, green hat, orange sleeves. This happens at every NFL game.”
The explanation makes sense, but the first paragraph invites curiosity regarding how game officials felt about a sudden investigation being launched not by the game officials but by the NFL, during the limited period of time that the game officials have to relax and regroup for the next 30 minutes of game action. Besides, if any of the game officials had deemed the intrusion by league employees “inappropriate,” would any of them have felt comfortable saying so?
Regardless, the Constitution & Bylaws currently aren’t an issue for the Patriots or for the NFL in the #DeflateGate controversy. And, unless and until the Patriots begin criticizing specific football officials by name, they likely never will be.