Rift Widens Between NFL, Union as Peterson Sits Out Suspension

A rift between the National Football League and its players union is widening over the way Commissioner Roger Goodell is flexing his muscles in handing down discipline for violations of the personal-conduct policy.

The authority that was granted to Goodell by the NFL Players Association through collective bargaining in 2011 is now being questioned by the union.

Goodell this week suspended running back Adrian Peterson through the end of the season, extending the punishment for the former NFL Most Valuable Player who has been off the field the past nine weeks after criminal charges that he beat his 4-year-old son with a stick. The commissioner this season banned Ray Rice indefinitely from the NFL after video emerged of him knocking out his then-fiancee with a punch.

“What you’re seeing is more situations involving higher profile players where there aren’t very clear parameters about what the commissioner is going to do,” said Paul Haagen, a professor of sports and contract law at the Duke University School of Law in Durham, North Carolina. “The sense in the union is that cases are being treated quite differently.”

In appealing Peterson’s ban, the NFLPA said yesterday that the NFL, over the past several months, has been “making up the process and punishment as it goes” in regard to disciplines for violations of its personal conduct policy.

“The process the NFL has employed since the beginning of the season has been arbitrary, uneven and inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement,” NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said this week.

“There is a growing gap between the players and the league office and that shouldn’t be,” Smith said on ESPN radio.

NFL Power

Mark Conrad, head of the sports business program at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business, said the NFLPA doesn’t have many legal options, as Goodell is operating within the powers given to him under the NFL constitution and CBA.

“Unlike the other major professional sports leagues, the commissioner in the NFL has retained more disciplinary powers than in the others because there are very limited appeals for that process,” Conrad, who teaches sports law, said by phone. “They would have to find something in the CBA that’s been violated before they take any action. In the absence of that, the commissioner has considerable discretion, especially over its personal conduct policy.”

The NFLPA said the league has attempted to impose new disciplinary processes and procedures in regard to Peterson that are in violation of the CBA.

New Policy

Goodell has said the NFL will have a stricter and more comprehensive personal conduct policy in place before February’s Super Bowl. Yet the league has frustrated the union by shooting down requests that changes to the policy be decided through collective bargaining.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league wouldn’t comment on Goodell’s authority in relation to the new personal conduct policy, as it is still being formulated.

Jeff Pash, an NFL executive vice president and the league’s general counsel, said on ESPN radio two days ago that it’s important there be uniform and high standards that apply to all players. That way, thousands of “good men” aren’t tarnished by the actions of a few, he said.

“You need someone who sets and enforces standards, who’s clear, who’s consistent,” Pash said about the commissioner deciding discipline. “You cannot outsource your reputation.”

While the NFLPA has appealed Peterson’s suspension, arguing he was told by an NFL executive he’d be credited for “time served” while on the commissioner’s exempt list, the NFLPA is still awaiting a decision in its appeal to a neutral arbitrator about the discipline for Rice. The former Baltimore Ravens running back has argued his indefinite ban was an additional punishment on top of his initial two-game suspension.

Public Scrutiny

Conrad said similar instances have presumably occurred before in the NFL, yet there hasn’t been the public scrutiny there is now. Goodell faced calls for his removal because of his handling of the Rice case, which also led to criticism from sponsors, fans and the media as well as women’s groups.

Goodell could avoid being a lightning rod for criticism if he ceded some power in disciplinary matters, Duke’s Haagen said.

“I suspect he’s very interested in retaining a great deal of authority so if there’s something embarrassing and damaging to the brand, he can act,” Haagen said by phone. “Why he didn’t take this moment to bring the union in, I don’t know. This is clearly a statement of his authority.”

CBA Amendment?

The only way for the union to reduce Goodell’s powers legally would be to amend the CBA, like Major League Baseball did with drug testing, Conrad said. That’s not something the NFLPA would want to do, he added, and it probably wouldn’t happen unless the sport was being damaged by something that “hurts all sides.” The NFL isn’t at that point.

“In baseball, we were. Both sides were slammed in congressional hearings, attendance was down, there was huge criticism and the union reluctantly came up with a stronger policy,” Conrad said. “We’re not there yet with the NFL.”

Yet the rift between the league office and its players is seemingly getting wider. In its appeal of Peterson’s penalty, the union demanded a neutral arbitrator for the hearing over Goodell, saying there’s no way for the commissioner to be impartial.

“You can’t sit on the sidelines and try to bully your way into something, and then call it fair,” the NFLPA’s Smith said. “The growing lack of confidence our players have in our commissioner is something that the league office needs to address quickly and responsibly.”

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