Goodell, Big Ben and personal conduct

The NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy has been a hallmark of the tenure of Commissioner Roger Goodell, who made it a priority initiative to restore and maintain public confidence and integrity in the league’s product: its players. The policy states in broad terms that discipline may attach even without criminal charges. Pursuant to the policy, players must avoid “conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the NFL, NFL clubs or NFL players.”

The definition of conduct is purposefully vague and broad, allowing for discipline in a case such as Ben Roethliberger where the player has, at the least, used exceedingly poor judgment in light of his status. Given Goodell’s mantra that playing the NFL is a privilege and not a right, consequences are probable.

The policy was strengthened three years ago this week with language that included the following: "It is not enough to simply avoid being found guilty of a crime. 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 and subject to discipline, even where the conduct itself does not result in conviction of a crime."

Sounds like it was meant for situations such as this.

The important thing to note is that all situations facing Goodell are not created equal. This case is being watched closely by all NFL front offices, coaches and, of course, players. For that reason alone, Goodell may err on the side of punishment, sending a message to all that an A-list player can be disciplined for actions that do not result in a crime, let alone criminal charges, but simply for actions that damage the reputation and brand of the NFL and the Steelers.

Earlier this season in the NBA, Commissioner David Stern suspended Washington Wizards star Gilbert Arenas for bringing guns into the locker room -- before any charges were filed by the District of Columbia. Clearly, Stern was sending a message to all players that a star player could face immediate and -- pardon the pun — stern discipline before any charges are filed. And Arenas is not the level of star in the NBA that Roethlisberger is in the NFL.

Do I think there will be discipline? Yes. Do I think there will be a suspension? Better question.

The policy allows Goodell wide latitude, and in my view, the attachment of conditions to discipline is a clever way for the discipline to have continuing effect.

When Michael Vick was released from prison last summer, Goodell imposed a conditional suspension of “up to six games,” an amount of time that ended up being two games. This “de-escalator” type of suspension is an interesting and intelligent way of dealing with the problem.

Perhaps Goodell imposes a three-game suspension that may be reduced to two, one or even no games depending on Roethlisberger’s behavior and actions toward a new image in the next five months.

That might be a way to send a message without being Draconian. We’ll see. It will also be interesting to see where the NFL Players Association, which has been silent here, weighs in. The use of the Personal Conduct Policy, not part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, as a hammer has been a point of contention for the union, as the feeling is that Goodell has crossed the line with some of his discipline. This is yet another issue teed up for bargaining.

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