Not much news has emanated during or after the first day of the Deshaun Watson disciplinary hearing. One specific item of information that has emerged cries out for further analysis and interpretation.
From Rob Maaddi of the Associated Press: “I’m also told the NFL, despite insisting on indefinite suspension, wants to avoid the appeals process — source said ‘a terrible situation for everyone involved’ — so league is more likely to abide by Sue Robinson’s ruling IF she came back with 6-8 games.”
It’s a surprising revelation. If it’s true and accurate (and we’ll defer to Maaddi in that regard), the question becomes what does it mean?
For starters, why would the NFL leak this critical concession? Does it fear that, if Judge Robinson believes the NFL is destined to seize upon an inherently rigged appeal process, she’d be more likely to impose no discipline at all on Watson? After all, that’s the only way under the Collective Bargaining Agreement to prevent any appeal, which would then be resolved by the Commissioner.
It’s hard not to wonder whether it’s all a ruse aimed at getting her to impose some discipline, so that the league could then appeal to the Commissioner, whose employees already have decided that Watson should be suspended for at least a year.
Remember, the Commissioner cannot afford to be perceived as being too lenient with Watson. It would be difficult to sell to anyone the idea that the league has simply accepted something far less than what the NFL wanted, simply to avoid prolonging a “terrible situation.” Given the steps of the process that the NFL and NFL Players Association collectively bargained, the league has the absolute right to take to the Commissioner any decision from Judge Robinson, other than a decision to not discipline Watson at all. Why would the league simply accept Judge Robinson’s decision, if it falls far short of what the league wants?
Frankly, it feels like a rope-a-dope maneuver by the league. By making Judge Robinson believe that the league wouldn’t appeal her decision if it lands in the range of 6-8 games, perhaps she’d be less inclined to find that Watson shouldn’t be disciplined at all, since that’s otherwise the only want to keep the Commissioner from imposing the punishment that the league currently wants. By leaking this to the AP after the first day of the hearings, the league quite possibly is using the media to negotiate with Judge Robinson for moderate discipline, with a wink-nod that her decision wouldn’t be disturbed if it lands in the supposedly preferred range.
If it gets her to impose 6-8 games under the assumption that the league won’t challenge it, the league can then initiate the appeal process and ask for what it wanted in the first place.
Really, how much more “terrible” would the situation become if the league appeals Judge Robinson’s decision to the Commissioner? It’s not as if there would be another full-blown hearing. That’s happening now. The appeal to the Commissioner would be much more streamlined and efficient. It would take less time and effort. And, by the very language of the CBA, it would allow the Commissioner to implement the very punishment that his office currently is trying to secure.
Anyone who knows anything about the manner in which the league office under the leadership of Roger Goodell has behaved for nearly 16 years knows that the league will be as aggressive as it chooses to be. Despite periodic missteps (including most notably the bungled handing of the Ray Rice case), the Commissioner has lived up to his reputation as The Enforcer. Why would anyone believe that he’d accept a 6-8 game suspension for Watson when the league office is currently pushing for a minimum ban of at least one year?
No, it looks and feels like an effort to get Judge Robinson to think that her ruling will be safe, in order to minimize any temptation to slam the door on the Commissioner’s appellate jurisdiction by finding that Watson shouldn’t be punished at all. And if we’re able to see this, she is, too.
Bottom line? We don’t buy it. And she shouldn’t, either. Nothing leaked to the Associated Press or anyone else is binding on the NFL. Once the league gets the 6-8 game suspension that it now seeks, the league can appeal it to the Commissioner. Some will say, “But I thought they weren’t going to appeal a suspension of that duration?” The league, at that point, can either ignore those questions or simply say, “We never officially said that.”
Given that this is the first application of the new process arising from the 2020 labor deal, there’s no precedent, no history, no past practice. Everyone is plowing new ground, sailing through uncharted waters.
The league has a long history of doing everything it can to get anything it wants. Currently, it wants to suspend Watson for at least a year. It’s very hard to imagine that the league would just shrug and accept 6-8 games, when it knows that it can appeal the case directly to the person who runs the league office for more. Our guess is that the league wants to be sure that Judge Robinson imposes some discipline, so that the Commissioner can than impose the full extent of the discipline the league wants.