NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is about to face another of the many defining moments of his tenure. Now emboldened with a contract extension, the handling of an A-list player facing sexual assault allegations for the second time in two years is going to be another.
Time for action
Ben Roethlisberger – who hired a dream team of lawyers and investigators -- awaits his fate today when the disposition of his case is announced in Georgia (ESPN has reported that no charges will be filed). Either way, Goodell will have an important decision to make, and his monitoring will soon turn to action.
With the extended time frame between the night of the alleged incident and now, Goodell has chosen not to impose discipline to this point. That, however, certainly does not mean that Goodell will be afraid to do so with what he knows now. He proved his willingness to act quickly with his reported four-game suspension today of wide receiver Santonio Holmes, who was traded Sunday from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the New York Jets.
The Personal Conduct Policy, approved by former NFL Players Association head Gene Upshaw, has had good intentions yet has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Goodell has disciplined the likes of Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress, Larry Johnson, Donte’ Stallworth, Adam “Pacman” Jones and others. The important issue to note about Goodell and commissioner discipline in the NFL is that it may be imposed even without the legal and judicial process playing out.
Change from Tagliabue to Goodell
Bad behavior among NFL players is not something new. Goodell’s predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, an attorney, would not impose discipline on players until matters had wended their way through the court system with resolution: guilty, not guilty, plea bargain, etc.
With Tagliabue as commissioner, NFL teams could count on having misbehaving players available to them as long as their cases worked their way through the legal process. With the Packers, I knew that Tagliabue was not going to act on players’ misdeeds until the legal processes had played out, assuring the coaches that they would still have the players’ services – at least for a time.
That was then, this is now. There’s a new sheriff in town. Goodell has and will impose discipline on a player, whether before, during or after the legal maneuverings have played out.
Robinson first case
I experienced this firsthand in 2007 when the Packers signed Koren Robinson, a player Ted Thompson had long coveted. Koren had a DUI charge earlier that year with the Vikings and was released by the team. We acquired him, presuming – with a court date not even scheduled until after the 2007 season – that we would have his services at least that year.
Soon after signing, Robinson had a hearing with the commissioner’s designee on a Monday afternoon. The next morning, he was suspended for the year. There was no deference to the fact he had a defense to the DUI (which was later thrown out in a plea bargain). The information in the police report – that Robinson had a strong smell of alcohol -- was all Goodell needed to suspend.
Koren was reinstated a year later but had recurring knee problems that ended his career. One thing that came through the process was the tough love demonstrated by Goodell, who, while suspending him, took a true and genuine interest in Koren the person.
Vick, Pacman and Gilbert Arenas
When Michael Vick’s dogfighting allegations eventually resulted in a plea agreement, Goodell suspended Vick without pay “indefinitely” on Aug. 24, 2007, to be conditionally reinstated following his jail term last summer. Goodell had seen enough and put Vick on indefinite hold.
Adam “Pacman” Jones, a poster boy for the Personal Conduct Policy, was suspended for the entire 2007 season and part of 2008 although he was never convicted of a crime. Jones’ suspensions represented the sea change in the imposition of discipline from Tagliabue to Goodell.
Earlier this season, NBA Commissioner David Stern suspended Gilbert Arenas for the rest of the season for possession of guns in the locker room before charges were filed, taking a cue from Goodell to mete out discipline before any legal disposition of the case.
What to do with Roethlisberger
Now comes Roethlisberger. In the event no charges are filed today, will Goodell impose discipline for whatever information he has from the league’s investigation? Roethlisberger will certainly be summoned for an uncomfortable sit-down with the commissioner. The question is whether there will be further discipline.
With last year’s accusation chipping away at his credibility – when Roethlisberger used the Steelers’ media room as his pulpit for denial – there is less benefit of the doubt now. The Steelers did not make their podium available for his denial here. And now that the machinations of his skilled lawyers and investigators have taken place in Georgia, all eyes will turn to Goodell’s handling of this.
It will be another defining moment in an eventful tenure as commissioner, which is not yet three years old.
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