The NFL has a serious problem that goes deeper than public relations and perception and gets at fundamental issues of fairness and competitive balance. The problem: the league's justice system -- it's method of meting out punishment for infractions -- has no check or balance. It's a one-man fiefdom, a circular system in which the infraction is identified by Commissioner Roger Goodell, the punishment is determined by Judge Roger Goodell, and any appeal is hear by Czar Roger Goodell.
This issue keeps arising throughout the offseason in part because of the preposterously heavy-handed, "can I top myself" punishments Goodell has been handing out. The Bounty-gate penalties on the Saints have been far more stringent than the infractions would seem to warrant. Sure, Goodell and the league are understandably concerned about the concussion lawsuits former players have filed, but the punishments have been a study in overreaction, not well-reasoned justice.
The problem is compounded when Anthony Hargrove, who had submitted a signed statement in exchange for a lighter suspension, has publicly disputed the league's characterization of that statement. Hargrove's message: I didn't say what they're saying I said.
What's remarkable is how the league has so heavily punished a team, several coaches, and several players without presenting an overview of its evidence or the supposedly voluminous supporting documentation. The suspensions are imposed on a "because I say so" basis. Never mind proving the extent and seriousness of the charges and evidence. Never mind showing the paid for hits and injuries.
This sort of thing might have flown 20-30 years ago -- before the Internet and the instantaneous news cycle. But this is the era of transparency. If you're running a business and you want to have credibility, secrecy and withholding information is a bad way to go about it. Show the information you have to support your decision, explain the process behind that decision, and matter-of-factly answer questions.
In many ways, it's baffling how this could be a problem at this point in the league history. Owners and players just hammered out a collective bargaining agreement, and absurdly left the commissioner with sweeping powers to charge, prosecute, punish AND handle appeals. I don't know why the players would have gone along with giving the commissioner this much authority. And I don't know why the commissioner would want it.
This all started several years ago when Goodell abruptly decided to slap on a 6-shooter and a tin star and clean up the league. He started slapping gargantuan fines on players for big hits, and imposing hefty suspensions on players for off-field offenses. Think about this one: last season, he suspended Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger for being accused of doing something wrong. Now consider that prosecutors in the case did not even formally charge him with a crime in the case because there wasn't sufficient evidence he'd broken the law.
Consider then the case of the Redskins and Cowboys salary cap penalties. Punishments were administered without warning on the eve of free agency. The teams were hit with stiff discipline despite the fact that their actions were legal under the previous CBA, violated no rules, and were approved by the league office at the time. Umm, what?
At least in this one rare case, the Skins and Cowboys have been able to exploit a clause in the CBA to appeal the commissioner's decision someplace other than the commissioner's office. Last week, the teams had a chance to make arguments before an arbitrator. Reportedly, they haven't been able to argue the absurdity of the league's penalties against them because there's the hurdle of first establishing that the case can even be heard by an arbitrator. Apparently that "right" may have been eliminated when the commissioner got the players union to go along with the punishments.
Stay tuned, but don't get distracted by the details of the Skins/Cowboys appeal. It's an illustration of a more fundamental problem facing the league -- it's loss of credibility every time Goodell the appellate judge upholds a penalty imposed by Goodell the trial judge, as persuaded by Goodell the prosecuting attorney, with evidence presented by Goodell the lead investigator. The NFL is turning into a kangaroo court of over the top "justice" being handed out not in the interest of fairness or preventing teams from gaining competitive advantage, but in the interest of public relations and misguided efforts to affect lawsuits.
For the good of the league, Goodell should do something he probably finds unthinkable. He should step back and acknowledge that the league needs a system of checks and balances in its "legal" system. He should open talks with the players union to establish an external appeals system that will serve as a check on his absolute power. And he should do it today, before it's too late.