Roger Goodell wants to wait until Jim Irsay’s legal process plays out before suspending or fining the Indianapolis Colts owner. Though that’s very American of him, the critics who want the NFL commissioner to act swiftly and decisively before charges are even filed are barking.
Those dissenters don’t realize Goodell’s patience in this situation is very much in line with the standards he’s set for first-time offenders.
Irsay has admitted his previous battles with drug and alcohol addiction, yet he’d never run into any legal trouble until he was arrested in March on suspicion of DUI and possession of a controlled substance. Goodell has made it clear for many years he’ll only act ahead of the legal process when a player or employee has been involved in multiple questionable situations.
Goodell stated his strategy at his Super Bowl press conference in Tampa in 2009 when he was asked why he hadn’t yet suspended Plaxico Burress, the New York Giants’ wide receiver who put others in danger — just like Irsay. Burress had taken a loaded gun into a nightclub and accidentally shot himself in the leg.
"Our rules and our policy are quite clear from when we revised our personal conduct policy that we’re looking to deal with repeat offenders. We may not wait for the legal process to conclude when we have repeat offenders," Goodell said in reference to Burress, who had already been suspended by the Giants but not the league. "You can have a false accusation once, maybe twice. When you start getting into multiple accusations, you are putting yourself in the wrong position. You are making the wrong decision. You are in the wrong places. At that point in time, you are reflecting poorly on the NFL, yourself, your teammates. That does damage for all of us.
"I’m very firm on the fact that everyone deserves the opportunity to be defended, everyone has the opportunity, if they make a mistake, to deal with that, and deal with it within the legal process. We understand that many times, our players are targets, and we can’t rush to judgment. But again, multiple offenses over a period of time, you are putting yourself in the wrong position. And it reflects poorly."
The Burress case couldn’t have been much clearer. It was his gun, and there was a hole in his leg that offered all the evidence anyone needed to convict. Yet it wasn’t until Burress accepted a plea deal in August 2009 — nearly a year after the incident — that Goodell suspended him. (The suspension was lifted when Burress left jail in 2011 because Goodell felt Burress had been sufficiently punished.)
Irsay’s situation also seems pretty clear to many. Police say he had $29,000 in cash and bottles of prescription pills on him. But no formal charges have been filed, which is why Goodell wants to wait until Irsay’s situation becomes clearer before acting. Goodell said as much earlier this week in Atlanta, though that apparently wasn’t enough for some who think Irsay would have already been suspended if he were a player.
In 2010, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was punished ahead of his legal process playing out because he was considered a multiple offender.
The most commonly cited example of a player being suspended even though charges weren’t filed is Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who received a six-game ban following an investigation of sexual assault in 2010. (The suspension was later reduced to four games.) Goodell stated his decision was "not based on a finding that (Roethlisberger) violated Georgia law or on a conclusion that differs from that of the local prosecutor" but rather because of Roethlisberger’s overall conduct that evening and the fact he bought alcohol for underage students.
But here’s where Roethlisberger’s situation differs from Irsay’s: It was his second investigation for sexual assault. Roethlisberger was also being sued at the time by a woman who accused him of sexual assault in 2008. By Goodell’s definition of "multiple accusations" and putting himself "in the wrong position," Roethlisberger was a repeat offender.
Irsay, despite his history of addiction, is not. Plus, he sought treatment immediately, whereas Roethlisberger did not.
Does it look bad for the league that one of its owners was allegedly carrying that much cash and that many bottles of pills in a car? Absolutely. Should Irsay be held to a higher standard than the average player? That’s up for debate, but at the very least he should receive proportionately equal punishment (a maximum of $500,000 for him vs. $50,000 for a player) once his legal situation is wrapped up.
And once again, it isn’t complete. Roethlisberger’s was. He’d already skirted assault charges. If Irsay somehow dodges charges in his case, expect Goodell to punish him nonetheless. If he doesn’t, surely the criticism already coming Goodell’s way will be justified.
For now, the critics will have to be patient. And in the meantime, they should understand this waiting period does not constitute hypocrisy on Goodell’s part.