Fixing the NFL’s punishment problem – a proposal


Earlier today, Judge Burman vacated the suspension of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. This is just the latest, and most visible in a long line of defeats of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in litigation. The NFL has a major problem on its hands, even if it is unwilling to admit it.

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While Goodell’s insistance on abusing his power as the leagues’ judge, jury, and executioner is a major concern, it is only one of many issues that NFL is dealing with in regards to how they discipline players.

Removing Goodell from the process only solves one of the problems. It does nothing to clean up underlying issues that led the league to this point. It also does nothing to clean up the mess that has already been created.

The real problem isn’t just Goodell. It is the entire failed personal conduct policy (PCP) and substance abuse policy (SAP) that continue to create major problems for the NFL, and will do so until they are reformed.

The PCP was created in 2007 to help the NFL fight an image problem. There had been a string of arrests in 2006, including nine players from just one team. The PCP was created to help differentiate the league from the conduct of some of the players.

Recently, the PCP has had the exact opposite effect in part because the punishments rarely make sense when compared to the SAP. Then entire process has become a major black eye for the NFL.

Obviously, the entire process needs an overhaul. The NFL appears to be unwilling to alter things, but that will change. Unfortunately, when they do they almost certainly won’t do enough.

If the NFL wants to get it right, I have a three step process they should consider.

Step 1: Get the commissioner out of the equation

There is absolutely no reason for Roger Goodell, or his eventual successor, to be involved in this process. Having the head of the league ruling from on high makes every punishment an official league position on whatever the infraction was.

This is why we get those silly comparisons about how the NFL seems to care more about deflated footballs than domestic violence. Every time Goodell rules on something, he’s speaking for the entire NFL whether he like it or not.

Instead, the process needs to be overseen by a panel chosen through a partnership between the players and the league. I believe a three person panel would be ideal.

This panel would consist of one person assigned by the league, one assigned by the NFLPA, and an expert on the whatever the infraction was. The expert would be someone mutually agreed upon by the NFL and PFLPA ahead of time.

For example, if a player like Josh Gordon fails another drug test, the panel might consist of Troy Vincent (league rep), Eric Winston (NFLPA rep) and Dr. Somebody, renowned specialist in drug abuse and addiction.

The league and NFL would also have experts ready for cases for domestic violence and other various potential issues.

Step 2: Remove punishment entirely from the process

It has always been fairly absurd for the NFL to punish players for things that are done away from the game. It was done for PR, but it has created more of a PR problem than the original issue.

Instead, the panel would examine each each case and act in what it believes to be in the best interest of the people involved. While that might include missed playing time, it would not be done in a punitive manner.

In the Josh Gordon example, the panel might decide that since he has failed so many previous drug tests that he cannot play until after he has completed rehab and shown that he can remain sober for three months.

This wouldn’t be a suspension. It would be what the panel, under the guidance of the expert, deemed was necessary to help Gordon get clean and make better life choices.

Cases of domestic violence might require counseling, anger management classes and/or time away from football for the player to work out their legal problems. This would be the determination of the panel and not some pre-set stock discipline that makes no sense like the league uses now.

Since each case is different, there would be no reason to assume that all cases would result in the same action by the panel. There is no reason for the misguided and abusive actions of Adrian Peterson to warrant the same outcome as the violent actions of Greg Hardy just because they fall under the same legal umbrella of domestic violence.

Ultimately, the actions of the panel would be about what is best for the individual people involved. Remember, it isn’t about punishment. It is about treating people as people instead of commodities and doing what is best for them.

The panel could also oversee when owners (like Jim Irsay) or coaches or other non-player employees of the league run to trouble. I doubt any players would object to having individuals in management positions go through the process in the same way the players do.

Step 3: Remove appeals from being necessary

By addressing the transgressions using the steps above, there would be no need for an appeals process. The panel’s decisions wouldn’t ever need to be considered final, allowing them to change their opinion if new information becomes available.

If a player fails a drug test but believes the sample was tampered with, as was the case with Richard Sherman, that information would be presented to the panel before any decision is made. In this case, the expert on the panel would need to be replaced with legal expert until that portion of the process is completed.

The unfortunate truth is that situations often change. Ray Rice’s video is the type of new information that would cause the panel to re-examine their opinion. Doing so should be within their normal operating procedure.

At the same time, if a player pulls a Jonny Manziel and commits to his treatment and makes a considerable effort to make positive changes, the panel could decide to lessen any sanctions that had been in place. Since this isn’t about punishment, doing so would make perfect sense.

There are a couple of key points here that allow for the appeals process to be eliminated. First is that the actions of the panel are not a form of punishment. In that sense, there is nothing to appeal.

The other point is that the actions of the panel are a joint opinion of the league and the players association. This isn’t a combative process, and thus there is no one who is on either “side” of things, since there are no sides.

A win-win for everyone

Ultimately, this proposal would be a win-win for both sides. The players would be free from the arbitrary and often draconian rulings of Roger Goodell, and the league would be free from the PR nightmare that the PCP and SAP have become.

Adopting this new process doesn’t solve all their problems though. There is still the issue of PEDs and player safety violations. While a similar level-headed approach would make sense, the details of a system to handle those cases would be significantly different.

Such a drastic change in the PCP and SAP would require it to be collectively bargained. The NFLPA would jump at the chance for such substantive changes. The NFL, especially Goodell, would be much more reticent.

In the end, the status-quo is bad for everyone. The NFL needs to open their eyes and see that change is necessary.

Next: Why Seattle is waiting is sign Fred Jackson

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