National Football League
Does NFL Commish have too much power?
National Football League

Does NFL Commish have too much power?

Published Apr. 29, 2010 1:00 a.m. ET

Tiger Woods is lucky Roger Goodell isn’t the PGA commissioner.

If the personal conduct policy Goodell crafted for the NFL were applied to golf, Woods could have faced punishment similar to what Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger recently received for his off-field behavior.

First, let’s make this clear: These are different cases. Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault in two different situations. Police didn’t file charges after investigating both claims, but there is a civil suit pending from one alleged victim.

Something objectionable did happen last month in Milledgeville, Ga. when Roethlisberger provided alcohol to underage college students. Roethlisberger himself was allegedly so intoxicated that he took out his penis inside the bar before — as Eminem would put it — allegedly getting “rowdy” with a 20-year-old in a bathroom stall. The image of the NFL and the Steelers received a black eye darker than the team’s home jersey.

The philandering Woods never had those claims made against him, nor does he have a civil suit pending. But there are some common threads between Woods and Roethlisberger besides the “Dumb and Dumber” bootleg T-shirts featuring both that are being sold on Pittsburgh streets.

Like with Roethlisberger, there was a criminal aspect to the Woods situation. The entire controversy was kick-started when Woods was found lying unconscious in the street following a late-night car crash. Orlando-area police never pursued the matter beyond issuing a traffic citation. But if the PGA Tour had the same personal conduct policy as the NFL, just the suspicion of Woods being under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol when running his vehicle into a tree would make him subject to suspension and league-mandated counseling.

“It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime,” the NFL policy reads. “Instead, as an employee of the NFL or a member club, you are held to a higher standard and expected to conduct yourself in a way that is responsible, promotes the values upon which the league is based, and is lawful. Persons who fail to live up to this standard of conduct are guilty of conduct detrimental (to the NFL) and subject to discipline, even where the conduct itself does not result in conviction of a crime.”

There was nothing responsible or value-promoting about the sordid affairs Woods was having outside his marriage.

As more and more sleazy details surfaced, the PGA Tour essentially allowed Woods to punish himself. Woods withdrew from tournaments and entered a rehabilitation clinic (presumably for sex addiction but he isn’t saying). Woods was allowed to return on his own volition after being sufficiently “cured.”

Roethlisberger didn’t have that option. Goodell slapped him with a six-game suspension — reducible to four at the commish’s whim — and mandatory counseling.

So what type of suspension would Woods be subject to in Goodell’s PGA? Four tournaments? Six? Eight? Indefinite?

You can’t answer the question. That’s because only Goodell knows the answer.

The NFL’s personal conduct policy has more gray than black-and-white. Goodell doles punishment at his own discretion. As I have written before, Goodell is the league’s judge, juror and jailer. The commish even hears player appeals despite being the one who is doling the initial sentence.

There isn’t much recourse to challenge this system, either. Amid a slew of player arrests, bad publicity and the fatal shooting of Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams, late NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw agreed to Goodell’s autocratic personal conduct policy even though it wasn’t collectively bargained. In the news release announcing the Roethlisberger suspension, Goodell did say he made his decision after consulting with “current players, former players, the NFL Players Association and others.” The process, though, isn’t transparent. Roethlisberger and legal counsel David Cornwell didn’t even involve the union when conducting their closed-door meeting with Goodell.

Paul Haagen, a renowned sports law professor at Duke University, told that Goodell’s “authority to discipline for basically bringing disrepute or damaging a brand is not in and of itself all that shocking.” Haagen, though, also said it was “extraordinary” that Goodell would have such “open-ended” power.

Such juice does lead to the possibility of abuse, which Goodell’s critics claim is happening. When reinstating Michael Vick, Goodell took the unusual step of placing conditions that forced the quarterback to work with animal-advocacy groups and even keep the NFL apprised of his off-field financial planning.

Nobody knows how far Goodell will go in what can be perceived as an attempt to legislate lifestyle and morality.

NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith raised that point during a 2009 interview with USA Today.

“If you imagined a world where our court systems were not public and people meted out justice and all you heard was what the result was, well, they might even get the decision right but there would be a sense that it wasn’t fair because you couldn't see why things were,” Smith said. “I think that same underlying philosophy is true here.”

If what is alleged to have happened in Milledgeville is true, Roethlisberger’s behavior is indefensible and reprehensible. I’m not going to vouch for his character. I don’t know Roethlisberger beyond interviews in a news-conference setting.

But I do know this: Roethlisberger never spent a night in jail. He didn’t create the fake ID that the alleged victim was using to get into nightclubs. A massive law-enforcement report shows there isn’t a clear-cut picture of what exactly happened that night in Milledgeville. Claims in the 2008 civil suit filed against Roethlisberger in Nevada are just as cloudy. Yet he was given a steeper NFL punishment than Minnesota tackle Bryant McKinnie, a repeat off-field nuisance who received a four-game suspension in 2008 following his involvement in a nightclub brawl.

And because the policy’s punishments are so vague, there is the suspicion that Roethlisberger received an excessively harsh reprimand to appease black players wondering whether a white player in hot water would feel the same wrath Goodell gave Pacman Jones, Tank Johnson and Marshawn Lynch for their indiscretions.

Haagen believes players, the NFL and Goodell himself would benefit from having an arbitrator handle the appeals process.

“Were I Goodell, I would not want the authority that he has,” Haagen said. “The ability to act subject to an arbitrator review, which is what the NBA has, strikes me as a much more comfortable thing to do, particularly when the facts are not entirely clear. You may be under enormous pressure to act in the short term. To have an independent body decide afterward (on the appeal) may be very much in Goodell’s own self interest. If I were the union, I would sure want that.”

The NFLPA does. It will try to get policy changes made in upcoming collective-bargaining agreement negotiations. Until then, Goodell’s word is the NFL law. That’s largely why Roethlisberger didn’t try to appeal his suspension even though his released statement earlier this week emphasizes he “committed no crime.”

I have no doubt Goodell’s heart is in the right place. Unlike predecessor Paul Tagliabue, Goodell has made significant strides to help retired players and improve player safety. He has helped restore honor to the NFL shield. Player arrests are down significantly since his conduct policy was enacted in 2007. Decisions that affect a player’s livelihood aren’t levied lightly.

But at what cost?

Woods is fortunate he never had to find out.


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