Commissioner doesn’t have the authority to impose a fine in excess of $500,000

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The notion that Commissioner Roger Goodell will fine Cowboys owner Jerry Jones “millions” for conduct detrimental the league raises a significant question regarding Goodell’s authority to implement a financial penalty of that magnitude.

Article 8.13(A) of the NFL’s Constitution and Bylaws, a copy of which PFT previously has obtained, permits the Commissioner to impose a maximum fine of $500,000 for conduct detrimental to the welfare of the league. There are two possible paths around this limitation.

First, the Commissioner could, in theory, impose a $500,000 fine for multiple specific incidents of detrimental conduct, from the manner in which Jones handled his objection to Ezekiel Elliott‘s suspension to his threats to sue the NFL and the Compensation Committee in connection with Goodell’s contract extension to his alleged effort to cajole former Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter into publicly criticizing the league (and possibly other specific actions). Under this effort to create an inventory of infractions, the maximum fines could quickly multiply into the millions.

Second, Article 8.13(B) authorizes the Commissioner to to refer the matter to the Management Council’s Executive Committee “whenever the Commissioner determines that any punishment that the Commissioner has the power to impose pursuant to Section 8.13(A) is not adequate or sufficient, considering the nature and gravity of the offense involved.” This provision came up during the season, because owners were openly discussing the possibility of Jones being forced to sell his franchise, an outcome specifically contemplated by Article 8.13(B)(1). Under Article 8.13(B)(7), Goodell would have the ability recommend a fine in excess of $500,000 to the Executive Committee, which then would have the authority to make a final decision, subject to approval by 75 percent of all owners.

The report from the New York Times regarding the looming punishment of Jones doesn’t address these important procedural aspects of the situation, so it’s unclear whether Goodell will be stacking fines under Article 8.13(A) or relying upon Article 8.13(B). If it’s the latter, Jones could attempt to muster support from at least eight colleagues to keep Goodell and the Executive Committee from getting the requisite 24 of 32 votes. If it’s the former, Jones may be able to fashion an argument that various acts for which he’s being fined independently fall under the same umbrella of behavior. If it’s neither, Goodell apparently is exceeding his powers.

Either way, the plain language of the governing documents prevents Goodell from simply issuing a punishment beyond $500,000 because he feels like it. If he tries to take that kind of aggressive action without firm footing under the NFL’s Constitution and Bylaws, he’ll be giving Jones fodder for claiming that he was right when raising concerns about the arbitrary and excessive exercise of the Commissioner’s powers.

UPDATE 7:50 p.m. ET: The NFL has announced that the payment sought from Jones will represent reimbursement for attorney’s fees, not a fine.