The National Football League’s owners ratified a new personal conduct policy Wednesday afternoon, and it took league representatives less than an hour to admit that the new reforms, enhanced in the wake of several high-profile domestic violence scandals, were little more than a public relations ploy.
The new policy doesn’t add new punishments — it enshrines the new punishments Goodell laid out in August — but it outlines a new process for delivering them. A flow chart detailing the policy is on the NFL’s web site, while ESPN has Goodell’s memo to owners.
In short, the new policy establishes a process in which any player who is “formally charged with a violent crime or sexual assault” will immediately go on paid leave. Players can also be put on paid leave in the absence of charges if an independent NFL investigation “finds sufficient credible evidence that it appears a violation of the policy has occurred.” Paid leave will last until the end of an NFL investigation or the conclusion of the legal process, at which point the NFL can hand down discipline. Players can then file an appeal, and the appeal process will include a hearing in front of a new expert panel that can make recommendations to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Goodell will ultimately have the authority to make the final decision on any discipline.
It’s that last part that is most contentious, because aside from the NFL revising this policy without player input, it is Goodell’s ultimate authority to hear appeals that the NFL Players Association opposes most. The union, which according to spokesperson George Atallah was not included in development of the new policy, wanted appeals to automatically go in front of an independent arbitrator.
And it is on that point where New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who was on the committee that helped design the new policy, gave away the game.
The owners, Kraft said at a Wednesday press conference, considered handing that authority to an independent arbitrator. But they ultimately decided, he said, that an arbitrator was a “one-off” figure who “can compromise or water down what our best interests are.” Instead, the owners left the authority with Goodell because the commissioner is “the one person who understands the long-term best interests of the game,” Kraft said.
It is almost impossible, given the events of the last six months, to see that as anything but an admission that this is about public relations. That’s exactly what “the best interests of the game” are.
The Rice case became a PR nightmare for the NFL, largely because of the way Goodell handled it. The commissioner initially suspended Rice for two games — a lighter suspension than NFL players receive for comparably minuscule crimes — then, after public and media backlash against the league (thanks in part to the release of a video showing Rice punching his wife, and the NFL’s bungling of that too), revisited the Rice disciplinary case and suspended him indefinitely. In the midst of similar public backlash, it willy-nillyed its way to a full season suspension of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who was charged with child abuse, too.
In November, after months of wrangling between Rice and the NFL, an independent arbitrator overturned the harsher second suspension. There’s at least a chance that Peterson’s suspension is going to get tossed too. Independent arbitration was not guaranteed in either case; in both instances, the NFLPA asked for independent arbitration and the NFL agreed.
The lesson the NFL took out of this, then, is that not that its disciplinary procedures are out of whack; that it overstepped its bounds in an attempt to mitigate public backlash to its own bungling of the Rice case; that a carefully-bargained policy with player and union input might prevent that in the future; or even that, perhaps, it shouldn’t be in the business of positioning itself as our nation’s moral arbiter.
The lesson it took, instead, is that to prevent another public relations crisis, it needed to consolidate its power and bring down even harsher punishments. In the best interests of the league.
To the NFL’s credit, there are underlying non-disciplinary elements of the revised policy Goodell announced in August that are improvements. But the disciplinary policy itself is not meant to seriously address domestic violence and sexual assault within the league. Rather, it is about giving off the perception that the NFL takes these incidents seriously — or at least more seriously than it took the Rice case — in order to avoid the type of months-long PR crisis it faced this fall.
(Further evidence this is a PR-driven reform: Goodell sat down with the Wall Street Journal to produce a puff piece about how he “blew it” during the Rice case. It was conveniently published Wednesday morning, hours before the NFL owners unanimously approved the new policy.)
It’s not hard to envision what this sort of approach will lead to. As I’ve argued before, the absence of any player input in these decisions will virtually ensure that the disciplinary process turns into a battle over labor rights and NFL discipline. They will look a lot like what the Rice and Peterson cases have looked like so far. That isn’t an accident on the NFL’s part. It is a useful by-product. A negotiated process or an independent arbitrator who reins in its authority only get in the way of Goodell and the league’s desire to wield the policy as a tool against players.
Which should be a reminder that Kraft wasn’t being dishonest. This sort of policy is in the NFL’s best interests. It positions the league, publicly anyway, to make it look as if it is taking domestic violence and sexual assault seriously, while the NFLPA and any player it represents who fight these decisions will look callous and gross by comparison (see: Adrian Peterson). That’s good for the public image of the league. And, while at least part of Goodell and his owners might be sincere about taking these incidents seriously, there should be no mistake: good for the public image of the league is exactly what this new policy is designed to be.