At a time when NFL has done its victory lap regarding the outcome of the federal appeal in the Tom Brady case, the NFL Players Association openly wonders what the NFL is really trying to win when it comes to player discipline.
“There was a time way back when when I thought that the owners would look at the big picture,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said on Wednesday’s PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio. “What are we trying to accomplish? What issues are important as far as growing the game? How do we make the game safer for every level? And we would make macro decisions about things. For whatever reason ever sense [the Saints bounty case] when it comes to issues of player discipline there has been almost an inability or resistance to see the big picture in things. So if the owners and the [Management Council] truly want to think about big picture then there’s a chance of us moving forward on all sorts of issues. If there is going to be the myopic focus on who wins what round then that’s a role they are forcing us to play and that’s a role we will play.”
Although Smith didn’t expressly state that that the union and Brady will pursue the next level of appeal, the message is clear: If the NFL is going to force these fights, the NFLPA isn’t going to walk away from them.
“The long and short of it is the job of the union is to fight for the right of the player and we win some of these, we lose some of these,” Smith said. “But I think the bigger issue of course is everybody’s got to decide on, for the people who are entrusted with running this league, how we want the business conducted and really since [the StarCaps case], we’ve been in fights with the league over issues of how power is exercised. The job of the union is if we believe that it’s exercised in the wrong way, our job is to fight for our players and we never apologize for it and never will.”
One reason to fight the Brady case comes from the union’s ongoing effort to persuade Commissioner Roger Goodell to surrender final say over the remaining aspects of player discipline in which he has the power: discipline imposed under the Personal Conduct Policy and for conduct detrimental to the league. The NFL’s victory, on the surface, could make it harder for the NFLPA to accomplish this, since it underscores the full extent and significance of the power the Commissioner has had for decades. But Smith clearly still intends to try.
“There are always factors that can go into who believes what at the bargaining table and court leverage is only one of them,” Smith said. “I think the real issue is what do they want to get done? And it seems to me that the core issue here is. You and I can remember a time when virtually every player punishment didn’t find its way embroiled for months in a courtroom. I think if you read [former Commissioner] Paul Tagliabue’s ruling in the [Saints] bounty case where he talks about the judicious use of Commissioner discipline, that is a world that we used to have. If we want to get to a point where we can do other things economically to grow the game and not be so embroiled in these kinds of cases that’s the world that we should probably be in. If they don’t want to get there then the union knows what it’s mission is and we know exactly what we’ll do.”
It won’t be easy to persuade the NFL to surrender the Commissioner’s final say over discipline imposed for conduct detrimental to the game, based on comments Roger Goodell made earlier this week to Bloomberg TV.
“This is something that we’ve had in our constitution and bylaws and our collective bargaining agreements for decades,” Goodell said regarding the authority to suspend for conduct detrimental. “We think it’s important that the Commissioner protect the integrity of the game, that you can’t entrust that to someone who has, really, no understanding of our business. And in fact the appellate court [on Monday], we affirmed that. So we think this is an important element of our success. We obviously have changed our discipline process through the years and we’ll continue to do that if we think it’s in the best interest overall of the NFL.”
That last line opens the door to the possibility of relinquishing the remaining areas in which the Commissioner has final say. Regardless of whether the NFL ultimately wins the Brady case, it helps no one to have these protracted legal battles, all of which are fueled by the perception/reality that the Commissioner has overstepped his bounds, possibly because doing what is fair and just has taken a back seat to catering to the 32 people who employ and compensate the Commissioner.