New rules, same stranglehold.

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Another NFL Reform That Changes Nothing

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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National Football League owners have approved a new personal conduct policy, but where exactly is the “new”?

In light of the botched punishments of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has been under significant pressure to streamline the league’s haphazard disciplinary process. The new policy cements the baseline six-game suspension for domestic violence offenses introduced in August, and more clearly includes child abuse cases. It allows for stricter punishments “if aggravating factors are present, such as the use of a weapon or a crime against a child,” addressing one of the major concerns of Peterson’s season-long ban that was justified by Goodell by the “aggravating circumstances” of the use of a switch on a four-year-old boy.

Most notably, the league will appoint a new disciplinary officer, a “highly qualified individual with a criminal justice background.” This "special counsel for investigations and conduct" will issue the initial penalty, which the player may then appeal. The appeals process will include a review by an “expert panel” consisting of three outside consultants, who will make recommendations to the commissioner for his final decision.

Don’t be fooled: This is just a fancy new name for pretty much the old, established practices. The league still leaves itself some wiggle room around the six-game base punishment by allowing for the consideration of vague and underdefined “aggravating factors.”

But most importantly, this new policy does nothing to de-concentrate the disciplinary powers from the commissioner, the central problem in the way the league deals with punishment. Goodell has always had the ability to delegate the initial discipline to a league executive; that executive just has an elaborate, official-sounding title now.

And ultimately, the commissioner still has final say over the appeals process. The “expert panel” seems to be a somewhat meaningless group of consultants with no actual power. It’s not as though Goodell has had a dearth of smart advisers at his disposal -- most league insiders will tell you the problem is his unwillingness to listen to them.

Then there is the creation of a nine-person “conduct committee” that will review the policy on an annual basis and make recommendations for amendments and changes. That sounds promising, until you realize the committee is comprised of team owners and their personal representatives. Do we really think Dee Haslam, wife of Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, will be an independent voice challenging the commissioner? 

Every significant aspect of this “new” policy remains in-house, failing to address the inherent shortcomings of the NFL’s disciplinary process.

Recognizing this, the NFL Players’ Association has dismissed the policy in a short-but-sweet statement:

Our union has not been offered the professional courtesy of seeing the NFL's new personal conduct policy before it hit the presses. Their unilateral decision and conduct today is the only thing that has been consistent over the past few months.

The union is calling for negotiations, stating that any new policy must be the result of collective bargaining. According to NBC Sports’ Mike Florio, the players' group could file a “system arbitration” proceeding or bring a claim to the National Labor Relations Board.

So what should the NFL do to bring meaningful reform to its personal conduct policy? For one, it needs to start engaging the union. Shutting out the players and their representatives does nothing to quell the image of the league as a one-sided bastion of power that doles out punishment in the name of serving its own interests rather than any notion of justice or fairness.

Furthermore, the NFL has to give more than a nod to the idea of independent, outside counsel. The union has been calling for a “neutral arbitrator” to assume the disciplinary powers now held by Goodell. That would be ideal, but I’m not particularly optimistic for Goodell being open to such a direct relinquishing of his powers.

I’ve brought up the idea of a league ombudsman or inspector general before, mirroring the newspaper practice of employing someone to regularly review the organization’s procedures. Unlike the new NFL special counsel, this person shouldn’t be solely employed by the league; rather, the NFL and the union could split his or her salary, ensuring that the position remains neutral and unbiased.

It's vital that an NFL ombudsman have no connections to any team or player, and would be responsible for overseeing the entire disciplinary process. This includes making regular assessments of how the league is handling player punishments, increasing transparency and holding the league accountable to both the players and the public.

Finally, like newspaper ombudsmen, the NFL ombudsman must be employed to a fixed term -- say, one year or 18 months. Regular turnover would prevent the occupier of this position from growing too close to either side of the organization.

It’s actually quite unsurprising that the new personal conduct policy maintains the old protocol’s insularity. According to the Wall Street Journal, Goodell consulted NYPD Commissioner William Bratton on how the department handles discipline of its own officers. The NYPD doesn’t exactly have the greatest reputation when it comes to investigating itself, particularly when it comes to domestic or sexual assault. 

It’s no wonder, then, that Goodell would institute a policy meant to shield The Shield from outside criticism and review. But if the league were truly serious about reform, it would open itself up to negotiations and pay more than lip service to the idea of independent oversight.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net