Understanding the NFL’s new process for imposing discipline under Personal Conduct Policy

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The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In 2020, the NFL and NFL Players Association agreed to make real changes to the manner in which discipline is imposed under the Personal Conduct Policy. As a potential suspension of Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson continues to loom, it’s important to understand how the rules are different — and more importantly how they aren’t.

The latest CBA, finalized in March 2020, incorporates a Disciplinary Officer who makes the threshold decision as to whether a player will be suspended, and for how long. The Disciplinary Officer is jointly hired and compensated by the league and the NFLPA, a key change to the prior protocol that was run completely by the Commissioner and/or those who report to him.

The process begins with the league notifying the player of the potential violation for which discipline may be imposed. And while it’s not spelled out expressly in the policy, the league undoubtedly will recommend or request a specific duration of suspension. The Disciplinary Officer then proceeds to evaluate the situation. The process can, but is not required to, culminate in a full-blown evidentiary hearing.

Things get interesting once the Disciplinary Officer issues a decision. The Commissioner, or his hand-picked designee, continues to have full authority over the appeal. Based on the language of the policy, the Commissioner has broad powers when it comes to reviewing, revising, or reversing the Disciplinary Officer’s decision: “The decision of the Commissioner or his designee, which may overturn, reduce, modify or increase the discipline previously issued, will be final and binding on all parties.”

There’s an important caveat. While the Commissioner has the power to “overturn, reduce, modify or increase the discipline previously issued,” the Commissioner cannot alter a decision to not discipline the player at all. The league office has indeed confirmed that, if the Disciplinary Officer finds that there should be no discipline at all, the case is over.

That said, if any discipline whatsoever is imposed by the Disciplinary Officer (including, presumably, even a fine), the Commissioner has the power to “modify or increase” the punishment to whatever he wants it to be.

Thus, the Commissioner continues to have full and final say over all discipline under the Personal Conduct Policy. The Commissioner’s powers become short-circuited only if/when the Disciplinary Officer concludes that the player should experience no discipline. If any discipline is imposed, the Commissioner can change it in any way that he wants. With no appeal rights beyond that.

The changes to the policy would have been much more meaningful if the Commissioner made the first decision and then independent appeal rights activated. The policy as revised simply cuts the Commissioner out of the middle of the process, putting the bulk of the work on the Disciplinary Officer before the Commissioner (or his designee) swoops in with full and complete power to do whatever he wants, unless the Disciplinary Officer decides that the player should not be punished in any way.

For Watson, the good news is that if he can persuade the Disciplinary Officer that no violation occurred, the Commissioner can’t do anything about it. If the Disciplinary Officer disagrees and imposes any discipline at all, the Commissioner can rip up the decision and replace it with his own. And Watson will have no recourse.

19 responses to “Understanding the NFL’s new process for imposing discipline under Personal Conduct Policy

  1. The process is perfectly fine how it is now. I dont want to see any changes to it. Move on.

  2. as long as the commissioner has the last say, all these other steps are just window dressing and a waste of money…

  3. Instead of worry about how they are going to be disciplined, simple solution for the players behave like normal human beings or don’t play football…ditto for the owners.

  4. I can’t imagine that the NFL would go easy on Watson. It would be a PR nightmare that they don’t want. Goodell, et al, have been wildly inconsistent with the disciplinary process, but there’s just no chance they’ll let Watson slide.

    And this is just one of many reason why the Browns’ (Haslam’s) decision to vastly overpay/over-guarantee Watson was poorly thought out and a bad idea. Haslam is an inept, destructive owner who can’t get out of the organization’s way.

  5. He is the COMMISSIONER of the league. All discipline SHOULD be handled by him. To argue that the boss should not do his “boss” job requirements is just weird.

  6. It’s interesting to imagine how Deflategate would have gone under this system.

    I think no punishment would have been probable. I could also see something like the disciplinary officer fining Brady $10k, and the commissioner turning it into a four-game suspension.

  7. why does everyone say Roger has too much power, that is how it works in any company there is a president or ceo with final and overriding power, why should the nfl be any different. you cant let any group police themselves and impose punisment on themselves, it would never work, it has been tried and failed. A boss needs to be in charge with final say on big issues, just look at the packers as an organization. they dont have an owner(boss) to step in and make the tough final decision and that great franchise has been run poorly for a long time. every company/team needs a boss/ceo/commissioner to be the decision maker whether popular or not.

    baseball has not done much right lately, but the 2 yr suspension really puts their players on notice that disgusting (alleged) acts will not be tolerated no matter how good of a player you are. the nfl should look at that long and hard and stop being afraid of taking a hard stance on abuses/acts(allegedly) like that and make sure their players are on notice, the nfl does that by making an example of watson and suspending him for at least 1 yr, gotta make it hurt.

  8. Clarity question: as outlined in this post, the commissioner can only step in and holds final power over any “appeal”. Does that mean the commissioner cannot make any adjustment if the player chooses not to appeal? Can the NFL initial an appeal? That would represent some additional progress, as it would protect players from the commissioner coming down harder than the determination of the Disciplinary Officer if the player chooses to be satisfied with the verdict. Again, if things are as suggested in the post.

  9. Since Watson refuses to settle because of proclaiming innocence and strongly denies all allegations, if he gets suspended before his day in court, what would that suspension be based on? At that point, the league and Mr. Goodell would have some serious explaining to do.

  10. Mike, do you think Watson deserves any punishment from the league before his cases are decided in court?

  11. For those of you who are unfamiliar with working in a unionized workplace, mutual agreements that discipline be for “just and sufficient cause” and have some sort of appeal mechanism (usually an independent arbitrator) are fairly common.

    The idea is you want to be able to establish that an offense actually happened; that the offense was a violation of a rule that the employee knew about or should have known about; that managers aren’t just making up rules as they go along or making false accusations against people they don’t like; that rules are applied evenly; and that certain people aren’t cherry-picked and punished disproportionately/unreasonably.

    From what I have seen, if the NFL had this contract language in place, I think the league would struggle to see its discipline upheld often because the league seems to make it up as it goes along a lot and apply rules very selectively/unevenly.

    This is what people are referring to when they say the commissioner has too much power.

  12. nfldivas says:
    May 5, 2022 at 10:59 am
    Instead of worry about how they are going to be disciplined, simple solution for the players behave like normal human beings or don’t play football…ditto for the owners.

    Every organization has disciplinary procedures. This is like saying “why put school kids in detention, they just shouldn’t get in trouble.” People get in trouble because people are people and people have bad judgement and often make mistakes.

    Just saying “act like normal people” makes no sense because what does that even mean? There’s no crime outside of pro sports? It sure seems like “normal people” get into plenty of trouble, too.

  13. “ Things get interesting once the Disciplinary Officer issues a decision. The Commissioner, or his hand-picked designee, continues to have full authority over the appeal.”

    Presumably, that means if the decision of the Disciplinary Officer is not appealed, the Commissioner is also out of the picture? I assume the Commissioner’s discretion to do whatever he wants was intended to be an incentive to not appeal the decision of the DO.

  14. Seems reasonable to me. Does anyone think that there’s too much discipline in the NFL? With the amount of money players, management and owners are swimming in, is behaving really so much to ask?

  15. who or what is “normal people”….and do they exist in the NFL?

  16. The NFL disciplinary process is I believe – If, then, while, maybe, authority, because reasons.

  17. The National Organization for Women better not wait for Goodell to make a decision on punishment for Watson. I doubt Goodell understands the gravity of the accusations. They should make it clear to Goodall and the league, behavior like that will not be tolerated. Anything less than 2 years will be intolerable.

  18. The commissioner works for the 32 owners. 31 are mad @$230M guaranteed. Expect their wrath.

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