The football-following world has become conditioned to believe that, in all matters of NFL player discipline, the league has full and complete control over the process — judge, jury, executioner. But when it comes to discipline for on-field actions, a truly independent process exists.
And it works.
Hearing officers Derrick Brooks and James Thrash are jointly hired and paid by the NFL and the NFL Players Association, and they have final say over the cases they resolve. The league, as it did in the case of Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib and Raiders receiver Michael Crabtree, imposes the punishment, the player appeals, and the hearing officer sorts it out.
Amazingly, the league office never whines or wails about the outcome, even when the league loses, as it did (sort of) on Tuesday, with the suspensions cut from two games to one.
So if independence exists — and works — when it comes to the question of whether things a player does during a game will trigger significant punishment, why is independence unacceptable when it comes to the question of whether things a player does on his own time will trigger significant punishment?
Here’s why: Because the league traditionally has regarded its power as a product of collective bargaining, and the league consistently has refused to surrender any of that power without getting an equivalent concession from the union. While that way of thinking may have worked when Big Shield was sailing through calm, open waters, the turbulence the league faces on several different fronts cries out for a process that replaces heavy-handedness with fair, objective consideration in the hopes of balancing proper discipline with the importance of allowing the best football players to play football.
At some point in the aftermath of the Ray Rice debacle, protecting the shield became confused with protecting the Commissioner. The Commissioner and those who work for him need to start looking for ways to promote and enhance the shield. Extending the procedures that provided justice for Talib and Crabtree regarding an ugly in-game incident to policies that apply away from the field would be a smart, simple, and easy start.