NFL disagrees.

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NFL Beats Itself Up

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The Adrian Peterson case keeps getting messier by the minute.

On Friday, arbitrator Harold Henderson upheld Peterson’s season-long suspension for brutally disciplining  his child, despite a previous ruling in Ray Rice’s appeal stating that the National Football League’s new personal conduct policy could not be retroactively applied. On Monday, the NFL Players’ Association made good on its promise to file a federal lawsuit challenging the Peterson decision, arguing that the “independent” arbitrator was anything but and that the ruling violated the collective bargaining agreement.

Earlier yesterday, ABC News revealed a recorded phone conversation from November between Peterson and NFL executive vice-president of football operations Troy Vincent that had formed the basis of the union’s appeal. On the recording, Vincent seemingly acknowledges that Peterson would receive a two-game suspension, and that the time he spent on the Commissioner’s Exempt List while the league examined his discipline would be considered time served.

Vincent’s assertions on the phone call directly contradict statements he has made in the weeks since, including during his testimony, when he denied making any such promises to Peterson. But as Bloomberg News initially reported, and as has been confirmed by the audio recording, Vincent did say that Peterson would not be disciplined under the new rules. “So remember this, A.P., you’re not, today, you are not subject to the, to the new personal conduct policy,” Vincent said.

The NFL contends that Vincent doesn’t oversee player discipline, but it seems disingenuous to imply that the head of football operations shouldn’t have close knowledge of these cases.

Henderson, a former NFL executive appointed by Commissioner Roger Goodell who has ruled in the league’s favor in previous appeals, ruled that Peterson “was afforded all the protections and rights to which he is entitled,” and found “no basis to vacate or reduce the discipline.” But this seems to break from the precedent established in the Rice ruling, a decision by a neutral arbitrator who essentially rebuked the NFL’s slipshod punishment process.

The wording of Henderson’s decision says a lot about the “independent” nature of his role and who stood to gain from ruling against Peterson. “The Commissioner has broad discretion to impose appropriate discipline for violations of the personal conduct policy, and his recent pronouncements simply reflect his current thinking on domestic violence and other incidents involving physical force,” Henderson wrote.

Not only does Henderson’s ruling demonstrate Goodell’s immense, unchecked power to penalize at will, which had been called into question in the Rice decision. It also furthers the image of Goodell as a commissioner who’s tough on crime. It’s supposed to make us forget that this is the same guy who issued the initially soft punishments against both Rice and Peterson by convincing us that Goodell really does take domestic violence seriously. Really, he does.

It’s also part of an overarching strategy to paint the union as the defenders of domestic abusers and the NFL as the savior of victims. On Friday, Vincent made an impassioned plea to Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman that certainly worked wonders for the league’s messaging. This is an incredibly manipulative narrative designed to obscure blatant labor violations behind the mask of a zero-tolerance policy for domestic violence. If the league truly cares about protecting victims, then it will show in the future implementation of its new disciplinary policy, not in its retroactive, roughshod application resulting from public pressure. These recent cases only show that up until now, the NFL has  been concerned solely with protecting itself.

In an appearance on ESPN Radio’s "Mike and Mike" on Monday morning, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith challenged the Peterson ruling based on the Rice precedent and the league’s failure to appoint a truly independent arbitrator. Those factors will be part of the union’s federal case, in addition to challenges of the new personal conduct policy approved by the NFL without negotiating with the players.

The union is thus likely seeking to change the bigger picture beyond simply addressing recent cases of individual players -- a picture created in part by a weak union handing even more power to league during the 2011 labor negotiations. “This is a part of something that is bigger than just Adrian Peterson, Troy Vincent, Ray Rice,” Smith said. “This is another instance in which the National Football League will say anything on one day and do anything on another day to try to support a position that at this point is completely devoid of any rationality.”

Both the NFL and the union have their own interests to protect, and each side claims the others’ don’t include those of the victims. The best thing either can do for victims is fix this messy conduct policy. With the schism growing wider between the league and players, it might take the Feds to remove the ambiguity and bias from the disciplinary process and ensure that future penalties will be at once adequate, fair and binding.

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