Tuesday became a significant day for the NFL, for multiple reasons. In the morning in New York City, some of the NFL’s owners met with players so that owners could convince players that owners care about fairness in society. Later that same day, and also in New York City, some of the NFL’s lawyers marched into court and argued that the NFL’s owners are not bound by fairness when disciplining players.
The unintended nature of the irony makes it even more glaring. The owners are committed to fairness for all when it comes to persuading all players to stand for the anthem. The owners are committed to fairness for none when it comes to suspending any players for as long as the NFL decides to suspend them for.
How could any NFL player find this dichotomy anything but troubling? Fairness isn’t a part-time proposition. People are either fair, or they’re not. They’re either committed to fair processes and procedures, or they believe in maintaining a results-driven, P.R.-motivated kangaroo court.
The NFL, as it relates to the disciplinary procedures that resulted in the six-game suspension imposed on Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, believes that fundamental fairness is not required. That’s the league’s threshold, silver-bullet position, which it believes (or, perhaps more accurately, believed) flows from the ultimate outcome in the Tom Brady case. The federal judge that issued a temporary restraining order on Tuesday evening described the NFL’s interpretation of the Brady precedent as “quite wrong.”
He meant “wrong” as in “inaccurate.” It’s also “wrong” as in “not right.” The NFL should be committed to fairness in all things that it does, and the mere argument that it’s not required to be fair confirms that, from time to time, it isn’t fair.
It should be fair, at all times. To Elliott. To Brady. To the Patriots in #Deflategate. To the Saints in the bounty scandal. To the Chiefs when taking away draft picks for talking directly to a player who is about to become a free agent. To Washington and Dallas when they dared treat the uncapped year as uncapped.
Most importantly, every player should be able to go about his job — which entails taking significant physical risks on a regular basis — without worrying about the possibility of: (1) becoming the subject of potentially false allegations; (2) being branded guilty by the league office without sufficient proof of guilt; and (3) having no way to effectively proof his innocence due to the NFL’s failure to use fair procedures when giving the player and his lawyers access to information and witnesses.
It’s that simple. While the NFLPA agreed to allow the NFL to control the disciplinary process regarding matters of off-field misconduct, the NFLPA most definitely didn’t agree to allow the NFL to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, however it wants, without the player getting a fair and reasonable chance to defend himself. So if the National Football League won’t voluntarily provide basic fairness to its players, it’s on the American justice system to do it.
And if the American justice system isn’t ultimately committed to fairness, then we need to come up with a different word than “justice” to describe it.