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How The NFL Is Botching Its Suspensions Of People Like Adrian Peterson

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced this morning that Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who pleaded no contest to misdemeanor child abuse charges in Texas earlier this month, would be suspended indefinitely because of those charges, a decision that has set the league up for another entirely avoidable fight over whether Goodell has overstepped his bounds in wielding his disciplinary power.

Goodell suspended Peterson for at least the rest of the season — the soonest the running back can apply for reinstatement is April 15 — under the league’s code of conduct, which Goodell altered in August to include harsher punishments for players wrapped up in domestic violence, sexual assault, or abuse cases. Peterson agreed, after Week 1 of the season, to go on the commissioner’s exempt list, effectively serving the last nine weeks as a suspension with pay. Peterson and the NFL Players Association were already fighting Goodell over that issue, arguing in front of neutral arbiter Monday that he should have been reinstated immediately, when Goodell announced the extended suspension Tuesday.

On its face, the suspension makes some semblance of sense, and not just because the details of Peterson’s abuse are gruesome. The “new” policy Goodell announced in August calls for a six-game suspension for first-time offenders in incidents of abuse, and there are six games remaining on the Vikings schedule. But combine it with the nine games Peterson has already missed, which the NFL has apparently considered time served, and all the sudden Peterson’s suspension looks more like a 15-game punishment. That becomes even more apparent when reading Goodell’s justification, in which he argues that a set of “aggravating circumstances” contributed to a harsher punishment for Peterson.

“First,” Goodell wrote in the letter to Peterson, “the injury was inflicted on a child who was only four years old.” In addition, the use of a switch to discipline his child, Goodell said, “is the functional equivalent of a weapon, particularly in the hands of someone with the strength of an accomplished professional athlete.” And third, Peterson has “shown no meaningful remorse” for his actions, Goodell wrote, raising “serious concern that you do not fully appreciate the seriousness of your conduct, or even worse, that you may feel free to engage in similar conduct in the future.”

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The union responded as expected, accusing the league of overstepping its disciplinary bounds and immediately announcing its intention to appeal the decision on Peterson’s behalf.

“The decision by the NFL to suspend Adrian Peterson is another example of the credibility gap that exists between the agreements they make and the actions they take,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said in a statement. “Since Adrian’s legal matter was adjudicated, the NFL has ignored their obligations and attempted to impose a new and arbitrary disciplinary proceeding.”

This sort of fight was predictable from the moment Goodell announced the policy, which was fraught with major problems that made it look more like a PR mechanism, meant to help the shield the league from criticism of its handling of the Ray Rice fiasco, than a real solution.

For one, the policy was needlessly vague. It laid out the six-game penalty structure, but it also gave Goodell the authority to use those “aggravating circumstances” to come up with whatever punishment he deemed fit. He set aside the six-game punishment for Rice, and his overall handling of that case has led to an extended courtroom battle over labor rights. Now it has led to an extended punishment for Peterson, with Goodell again using mitigating factors to set aside the supposed six-game standard. That authority made it obvious that this had the potential to become arbitrary in a way that caused problems with the union, especially with Goodell and only Goodell deciding what “aggravating circumstances” were worth considering.

More importantly, though, is that it was developed with little if any input from players or the union and left Goodell in charge, just as he is under the broader conduct policy, an endless bone of contention between players and the league for the exact reasons that are playing out in these cases: the players don’t like that Goodell has unilateral authority to hand down punishments, that he also serves as the decider in any appeals process, and that, hell-bent on using the policy do whatever he deems necessary and expedient for the league’s image, he often seems to be making it up as he goes. In this instance, the league pushed Peterson to the exempt list, then asked him to participate in a hearing that the union decried as out of the ordinary for a typical process.

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Goodell’s “new” policy has already created the same disputes that were common before, because Goodell has continued the same practices on these issues that players took issue with on others. And so the Peterson and Rice cases have become less about domestic violence and child abuse and more about a proxy war over the league’s disciplinary power structure and what it might look like going forward.

As predictable as that was, it was also avoidable. As I wrote at the time, if the NFL wanted to be involved in disciplining players for violence, abuse, and assault (and there are good arguments that perhaps it shouldn’t be) Goodell could have sat down with the NFLPA and hammered out actual guidelines and standards for punishment. That would have been hard, but it would have earned buy-in from both the league and the union and laid down a more transparent process. It might have cost Goodell some power, but it would have required the union to work on the issue too, and it might have gone a long way toward eliminating elements of the long-running power struggle over disciplinary issues and the idea that all of this is one big “protect the shield” public relations ploy. And it might have, as former NFL player Scott Fujita tweeted on Tuesday, kept the focus on offenders instead of the policy itself.

But in August, with the league facing backlash from all corners over its handling of the Rice case (and others), it needed a quick image fix. So instead of a policy aimed at truly taking the problem seriously, we got a message. The effect was that domestic violence, assault, and abuse have become another issue over which Goodell and the union fight an endless battle. It didn’t have to be that way, but under this policy, it was always going to be.