Goodell’s continued power struggle

Football is finally back, more or less, and with it has come a brand new controversy involving a number of NFL players. While what they are being accused of is not as stupid as Ryan Lotche’s situation, it still is not a good look for the players or the league.

Four players, James Harrison, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and Mike Neal, all are facing allegations of PED use stemming from a report by the now-defunct Al Jazeera America. The NFL decided they wanted to look into the issue, but the players seemed less than pleased to comply, maintaining that nothing had happened. Much of the report’s backing faded once the doctor at the heart of it recanted his statements.

Goodell has the final say on all things regarding player discipline. (Wikimedia Commons)

However, the league still is insisting on meeting with the players, but the players all seemed unwilling to do so. Naturally, Roger Goodell responded by threatening to suspend the players.

No, seriously he did. Under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, which runs through the 2020 season, Goodell has the power to act as judge, jury and executioner. Sounds unfair right? Well don’t feel too bad for the players.

This is their fault. Aaron Rodgers pointed out this week that the players have no one to blame but themselves for the amount of power Goodell has. They focused heavily on fewer padded practices and more mandatory days off to prevent injury during the 2011 negotiations. As a result, the league got to push a more stringent agenda regarding the powers of the league office and most notably Goodell.

The NFLPA is reportedly urging all of these players to take a stand against the NFL in this case to challenge Goodell’s power. However, it sounds like Peppers, Matthews and Harrison are all going to meet with the NFL in the coming days. Neal will not though as he is currently a free agent and theoretically has nothing to lose. The latest is that the NFLPA wants Neal to sue the league over the issue. There is no word on what Neal thinks of that plan yet.

Mike Neal (far right) played most recently for the Green Bay Packers, along side the also accused Clay Matthews. (Wikimedia Commons)

On the surface, it seems like the players truly have nothing to lose in meeting with the NFL if they have not taken PEDs. They would have their names cleared and avoid a possible suspension. However, this goes much deeper than that. It seems that a number of players, especially Harrison, are fed up with the way that Goodell wields his power. Taking a stand would be a point of pride in acting as if the allegations were beneath you and a challenge to the authority of Goodell.

Unfortunately, after the results of Deflategate, where Tom Brady ultimately will have to serve his four game suspension, players have seen just how far Goodell and the league office are willing to go to maintain this power struggle. It takes a lot of investment to oppose the NFL on an issue like this because of the potential length of the proceedings. Not to mention the NFL’s persistence. We all thought Deflategate was as good as dead when Brady avoided suspension last season, only to find that the league managed to slap him with it this year instead.

The underlying point is that this will continue to be an issue until after the 2020 season, when the CBA is renegotiated. The scary thing is, with how intense the league has been about maintaining absolute control in player discipline, you have to wonder how willing it might be to budge. And if that is the case, we could be looking at another NFL lockout at the start of the decade. The NFLPA is not willing to back down from this fight and continues to look to find ways to challenge this standard even before the CBA is up.

This will be the main topic of those negotiations and you can bet those arguments are going to be very heated.

Why the NFL had no choice with Brady

The NFL is a joke these days. The fact that you can sit there and think to yourself, well what are you referring to here is some indication of how much so. It could be the laughable attempts to improve player safety, the failure to address domestic violence or the continued drug related suspensions. In this case, I’m actually referring to none of those though and I’m focusing on the NFL time and time again reducing or repealing player suspensions.

It has been a long six months for Tom Brady. Usually, the Super Bowl champion would get at least a little time to relax and savor his victory. Instead, he has spent his offseason in the midst of a private investigation regarding the deflation of footballs in the AFC Title Game against the Colts. Brady was subjected to questioning first by the league then later by independent investigators under Ted Wells. The whole story was poked and prodded as much as possible and the media (yes myself included) had a field day with it. It was a supposed stain on the legacy of Brady and the Pats Super Bowl win.

Tom_BradyYet as time has gone on, no real hard evidence has surfaced. The Wells report indicates that Brady “more likely than not” was aware of the situation. Brady once again refuted the claims but the league imposed a four-game ban on the New England quarterback for the start of next season.

That didn’t settle anything though as the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and Brady went on to appeal the suspension. That to weeks of trials and further investigations into the situation. What surfaced most recently definitely puts Brady in some hot water. It turns out he had destroyed his cell phone and sim card while the NFL was trying to acquire them as evidence. He claims it was a normal procedure for him as he was replacing his old phone. I can bet Brady wouldn’t want his own personal information, messages or photos falling into the wrong hands and winding up online. It makes sense to destroy. Unfortunately, he just picked a really bad time to do it.

The phone destruction doesn’t necessarily prove anything but it certainly makes Brady look guilty and that was enough for the NFL to vote to uphold the suspension. Brady and the NFLPA are now appealing that decision because apparently you can appeal everything in the NFL. Maybe Brady has a point that the NFL doesn’t have enough hard evidence but that’s not why they are making an example of him.

As I have made clear the NFL is a joke with reducing and repealing suspensions. So it should come as no surprise that the league feels it is pressured to uphold Brady’s suspension to save face. The NFL can attempt to be as harsh as it wants but it has previously set precedents that the NFLPA will often use as a way to negotiate down a suspension. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the length of some of them either (see Ray Rice, domestic violence). In short, the NFL has looked weak and it seems like the NFLPA has just been pushing them around.

Tom BradyThe league has no desire to look weak obviously. Already this summer Greg Hardy and LeVeon Bell had suspensions reduced after appealing the decision. The league needed to make a stand and show that it is capable of dishing out a suspension then upholding it. The NFL gave itself no choice but to uphold the suspension. Brady just seems to be caught in the crossfire. Now I can’t tell you if Tom Brady is innocent or not. That much has not been clear. What is clear is the overall lack of cohesion between the NFL and the NFLPA and the amount of leeway Commissioner Roger Goodell has with suspensions.

The NFL was in many ways forced to implement a system that established standard sentences regarding domestic violence punishments. The league also has a system in place for violations of the substance abuse policy. However, outside of those two categories, there is a lot left open for interpretation. That is where Goodell simply seem to slap an arbitrary number of weeks on the table and say it is final. The league needs to find a way to avoid that at all costs. That sort of uncertainty surrounding the suspension allows it to be appealed. Brady’s situation is unique but that does not mean that Goodell should choose what he feels is warranted. It is more than clear that Goodell’s judgement is questionable at best.

The easiest thing for the league to do is arrange an outside board that collaborates with the NFLPA to assign suspensions that fall outside the realm of domestic violence or substance abuse. That was not everything is being appealed before it even hits the table and Goodell is removed from the equation.

As for Brady, there is only one way that the league will relent on his four-game suspension, if he admits that he was involved or had knowledge of the situation. Even then, it would only cut his suspension in half. I don’t see Brady going this far only to back off and say he knew. Whether he did or not. I think Brady is just going to have to bite the bullet and sit out the four games. No one seems capable of coming to his rescue. Not even the NFLPA. The NFL is determined to make up for past weaknesses.  It is at war. And it seems determined to win.