Monday Morning View: Roger Goodell Has Ethical Responsibility in Bounty Suspensions
We’ve all been following this New Orleans Saints bounty scandal for a while now, and although NFL Commissioner Rodger Goodell recently upheld the four player suspensions in their appeal, the fight is far from over. The NFLPA has now filed a lawsuit on behalf of Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove, and Scott Fujita claiming that Goodell violated the labor agreement in the “investigation and arbitration process.” Jonathan Vilma is currently involved in a separate lawsuit against the NFL.
But I want to back up a little bit. When the news was released that Goodell denied the players’ appeals, he wrote a “public” letter to the players involved that outlined the foundations of his decision. Here is some of the text in case you’ve missed it:
Throughout this entire process, including your appeals, and despite repeated invitations and encouragement to do so, none of you has offered any evidence that would warrant reconsideration of your suspensions. Instead, you elected not to participate meaningfully in the appeal process . . .
Although you claimed to have been ‘wrongfully accused with insufficient evidence,’ your lawyers elected not to ask a single question of the principal investigators, both of whom were present at the hearing (as your lawyers had requested); you elected not to testify or to make any substantive statement, written or oral, in support of your appeal; you elected not to call a single witness to support your appeal; and you elected not to introduce a single exhibit addressing the merits of your appeal. Instead, your lawyers raised a series of jurisdictional and procedural objections that generally ignore the CBA, in particular its provisions governing ‘conduct detrimental’ determinations . . .
In sum, I did not make my determinations here lightly. At every stage, I took seriously my responsibilities under the Collective Bargaining Agreement. I determined the discipline for each of you
(1) only after a long, detailed and professional investigation by NFL Security’s experienced investigators;
(2) only after the results of that investigation were carefully reviewed by an independent expert, former United States Attorney Mary Jo White;
(3) only after I heard the appeals of the Saints’ coaches and staff regarding discipline for their roles in the program;
(4) only after representatives of NFL Security, along with Mr. Pash and Mr. Birch, spoke with Players Association attorneys at length regarding the investigation; and
(5) only after giving each of you multiple opportunities to meet with the NFL investigators and to share with them your version of the events surrounding the program. The suspensions imposed were reasonable action taken to preserve public confidence in, and the integrity of, the game of professional football . . .
While this decision constitutes my final and binding determination under the CBA, I of course retain the inherent authority to reduce a suspension should facts be brought to my attention warranting the exercise of that discretion. The record confirms that each of you was given multiple chances to meet with me to present your side of the story. You are each still welcome to do so.
As I read this for the first time, there were some things that initially struck me as odd. First and foremost is the claim by Goodell that the players “elected not to participate meaningfully in the appeal process.” He goes on to say how their lawyers didn’t question the investigators, the players didn’t testify, witnesses weren’t called, and no evidence was presented to back up their appeal.
Excuse me, Mr. Goodell, but do you know what an “appeal” is?
For one, it is not a trial. It’s not a time when each side makes its case and presents the evidence to the judge. That should have already happened in the initial decision-making process. No, an appeal (generally speaking) is when the appellant tries to show that the verdict or decision reached in the initial trial was based on erroneous facts or legal principles. The court of appeals comes to their decision based on the records established in the original case. Both parties make briefs, or legal arguments, but do not include additional evidence or witnesses.
Now, I know that this is not a U.S. court of law. The NFL Commissioner is granted his power over the league through a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Our friend Aaron Nagler made this perfectly clear over at his NFL blog on Bleacher Report, and as a point of fact he is absolutely correct. However, there are a lot of good reasons for how the judicial system in America operates, which are based on logic and ethics. While it is not the only way to uphold justice, it has many aspects worth emulating, and Goodell should start taking some notes.
Tied into this idea of what Goodell considers an appeal is the implication he made that the players should be proving their innocence. Think about that for a moment – proving innocence. In nations all around the world, a “presumption of innocence” is commonly recognized. “Innocent until proven guilty” is the phrase we often use for this, and there is a reason for it.
Imagine for a moment that you’ve been accused of speeding on the highway. The police officer didn’t use a radar gun or VASCAR device, he just says that he saw you driving awfully fast. How would you prove your innocence? Could you provide proof that your car never went too fast? Perhaps you might have a witness, but what if you didn’t? I don’t think most of us record our driving speeds on a minute-by-minute basis. There’s no way you could provide tangible proof outside of giving a legal statement. Thus, the “burden of proof” falls on the prosecution.
Going back now to the bounty scandal, how could these players provide any hard evidence that they didn’t participate in a bounty program? Take some time to really consider that.
I’ve said from the very beginning that “pay for injury” bounties have no place in the NFL, and it’s a conviction that I still stand behind. But we’ve travelled a long way down the rabbit hole when it comes to this scandal with the Saints. Players and coaches alike should be held accountable for any involvement with a bounty system; however, the sentencing should be done fairly.
I can’t doubt that there was some sort of bounty system in place under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. There’s simply too much evidence pointing to that fact. Where the evidence seems to be falling short is which players were involved and the level of their involvement. While I want players to suffer appropriate consequences for their actions, Goodell has an ethical responsibility to make sure the right players are being penalized.
When originally setting the suspensions for the four Saints players, Goodell made the following statement: “In assessing player discipline, I focused on players who were in leadership positions at the Saints; contributed a particularly large sum of money toward the program; specifically contributed to a bounty on an opposing player; demonstrated a clear intent to participate in a program that potentially injured opposing players; sought rewards for doing so; and/or obstructed the 2010 investigation.”
Anthony Hargrove, now with the Green Bay Packers, suffered the second-highest suspension at eight games. According to the league, he “actively obstructed the league’s 2010 investigation into the program by being untruthful to investigators.” He also “actively participated in the program while a member of the Saints” and “submitted a signed declaration to the league that established not only the existence of the program at the Saints, but also that he knew about and participated in it.”
But that was then, and now the NFL has a slightly different story to tell.
First of all, that signed declaration doesn’t admit participation in the program. (Read it if you haven’t!) Second, the latest controversy over the “Bobby, give me my money” video has the NFL backtracking in a stumbling tap dance around the issue. ESPN NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert sums it up nicely in his article on the matter: “So essentially, again, we’re left to assume that Hargrove was suspended eight games because he denied existence of a bounty program in 2010 — even if there is no evidence that he participated in it or was aware of it. Yikes.”
One simply has to wonder what Roger Goodell is basing his decisions on at this point. Where is the evidence that demonstrates his “clear intent to participate”? Seifert went through some of the documented evidence released by the NFL back in June and noted that plenty of other Saints players are shown to have had more involvement in the program. Why weren’t they suspsended?
Even if we are now boiling everything down to Hargrove’s “cover up” in 2010, there are still plenty of questions to answer. Why was Hargrove specifically targeted with this crime? Did no other player on the team lie about the bounties during that investigation? Were other players even questioned by the NFL? If not, then again, why was Hargrove the only one? Whether or not his lying is defensible, whether or not he was told to lie by the coaches, this accusation seems very targeted.
And consider this: Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt was suspended for six games this season. That’s two less games than Hargrove, yet there seems to be more proof that Vitt was involved than Hargrove. Not only that, Hargrove’s statement includes Vitt as a coach that told him to initially deny the program’s existence in 2010.
Where is the equity in Goodell’s decisions? Why eight games for Hargrove and six for Vitt?
It just doesn’t make sense. This entire charade seems to have become more of an extension of last year’s labor negotiations than anything else. Did the NFLPA’s initial lawsuit against the NFL questioning Goodell’s arbitration powers lead to this? Probably. But now it seems that Goodell is simply trying to make a power play to reinforce his control over the NFL. Sure, he left the door open to the players to meet with him about their suspensions, but it’s nothing more than veiled bullying. He’s basically telling him that they’ll get what they want, but only if they play by his rules. They have to do what he wants them to do.
I don’t envy Roger Goodell’s position. He has a lot of responsibilities in keeping the NFL running as smoothly and as profitably as possible. There’s a ton of pressure lately with the NFL concussion lawsuits, and this latest scandal has already woven itself into that mess. But he has a responsibility to the owners, coaches, and players to make the right decisions. The CBA may not dictate what is fair or ethical when it comes to Goodell’s powers as Commissioner; nevertheless, it is his duty to act impartially in cases of player discipline.
As a public teacher, my workplace rights and responsibilities are governed by an agreement made between the school district and the teacher’s union. That CBA dictates my pay scale, how many classes I can teach, how many sick days I get, and so forth. But it doesn’t tell me that I have to spend my summer planning for classes and writing curriculum. It doesn’t tell me that I can’t go home at night and grade classwork. In short, it doesn’t tell me how to be a good teacher.
The CBA agreed to by the NFL and NFLPA outlines the powers of the NFL Commissioner, but it doesn’t tell him how to use those powers responsibly. Roger Goodell needs to understand that as the only person passing official judgment in this whole bounty scandal, he has an ethical accountability for what he decides.
It’s a hard thing to be critical of yourself and your decisions, but Goodell needs to do just that. He needs to look inward and ask himself if he is doing the right thing for these players so greatly affected by his verdict. As many have said before, “With great power there must also come great responsibility.”——————Follow @ChadToporski