Why are so many of my brethren in the media doing such a lousy job analyzing and reporting on the realities of the ruling by the NFL’s three-member appeals panel on the suspensions of Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove?
One NFL insider called it a “gut punch” to Roger Goodell and another extremely reputable reporter called Goodell a “damaged commissioner” in response to the ruling. The reality, guys, is it’s a mosquito bite for the commish. The facts are that while I believe Goodell erred dramatically in not interpreting and presenting the use of his powers differently, the appeals panel made it perfectly clear that he can now go ahead and do exactly what he did before if he so chooses.
The still relatively new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which will bind the NFL players and owners together for nine more years, states unequivocally that the commissioner can fine and/or suspend players for conduct on the playing field or for “conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in the game of professional football.” It also states in Article 46, Section 2, paragraph (a) in relation to appeals of the commissioner’s rulings that the commissioner will appoint hearing officer(s) and that the commissioner may serve as a hearing officer in any appeal at his discretion. The appeals panel has not challenged that in any way.
What the appeals panel did was use fine print in the CBA to force the commissioner to take another look at his decision and see if maybe there isn’t a better way he could handle it. The CBA calls for a System Arbitrator to oversee enforcement of certain conditions of the CBA as opposed to the commissioner, specifically issues related to player contracts and the salary cap. When Goodell stated that the principals involved in the “Bountygate” scandal damaged the integrity of the game and violated the standard player contracts by accepting bonus payments outside of their contracts, he gave the panel the speed bump it was looking for.
What the appeals panel actually ruled is that Goodell has all the authority he needs to issue the suspensions for conduct detrimental to the integrity of the game, but he does not have the authority to punish the players for any payments they might have received. The panel instructed Goodell to go back and reconsider the appeal and to rule only on the question of the defendant players’ conduct, not the payments. If he wants to rule that alone was egregious enough to merit the suspensions he can issue the same suspensions again and there is nothing the appeals panel can do about it.
The sentiment of Saints QB Drew Brees, that “It makes you feel like they took a very hard look at all the evidence there and saw that we were in the right” is totally incorrect. The ruling says nothing of the sort. The opinion of Vilma’s defense attorney, Peter Ginsberg that “The factual record in the court makes it clear (Goodell) has acted in a biased and inappropriate manner” is completely ludicrous. In fact, it makes no comment at all about Goodell’s ruling; it just says he can make it for only one of the reasons he gave, not both.
Here’s what I’d like to believe the appeals panel really meant: I think they wanted to send a message to the commissioner that just because you have the right to do something, that doesn’t make it the right thing to do. I believe they found the lack of transparency and due process in the matter, and Goodell’s refusal to appoint an unbiased third party to hear the appeal as offensive and un-American as the rest of us did. Not because anyone really cares that much about the whole bounty system that clearly was in place in New Orleans and these four players were involved in, but because we do all care about the integrity of the game.
Know this though — the panel’s ruling has, in fact, not limited the commissioner’s power going forward in any way, and recent history shows us that Goodell is not one to panic. If anything, I expect he will use this slight misstep to make himself appear more human, and somewhere down the road after it’s long forgotten, Goodell will be more powerful than ever. That’s because it’s still the players who signed a really bad deal and gave him the power they now resent so deeply.