In modern parlance, they call it “attack surface reduction,” which means doing everything you can to reduce the target and deflect malicious intruders. When you intentionally present the enemy with a target, you’d best be prepared to suffer the consequences. Which brings us to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who last week exposed his broadside, his backside and every other side of his professional anatomy to intense fire from all sides in the Patriots' Deflategate controversy.
While I believe QB Tom Brady and Coach Bill Belichick got off too easy, others in the League believe the four-game suspension of Brady, the docked #1 and #4 draft choices and the $1 million fine against the club were too severe. Granted, the fine for deflation of balls and similar offenses is only $25,000, but Brady and the Patriots’ insistence on denying guilt for yet another violation of the rules justified the penalties. Penalties on serial offenders should be tough.
But now Goodell has waved a red flag in the face of his enemies. Goodell will preside over the appeal of the penalties, rejecting a request by the NFL Players Association for a neutral arbitrator to hear the case. Goodell’s decision to handle the appeal was unexpected after recent high-profile cases involving Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, in which Goodell appointed independent arbitrators to oversee their appeals.
Former U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones was appointed to hear Rice’s appeal against an indefinite suspension imposed by the NFL after video emerged of him knocking out his fiancée in a hotel elevator last year. Rice won his appeal and was reinstated by the league. Goodell appointed Harold Henderson, a former Management Council executive director, to handle an appeal by Peterson, who was suspended without pay by the NFL after facing child abuse charges. Henderson upheld the suspension but his ruling was challenged by the NFLPA in federal court in Minnesota. U.S. District Judge David S. Doty ruled that the league had exceeded its authority to punish Peterson. The league appealed Doty’s ruling but later reinstated Peterson.
And Goodell wants to face the inevitable court challenges of his authority? The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement gives the Commissioner the right to make decisions for the good of the League and to punish any player, coach, employee or club that threatens it. The NFLPA agreed to that right at arm’s length bargaining, and ever since has been trying to get their friends in the legal community to let them out of the obligation. I know how the NFLPA operates, having seen it up close as a member of the NFL Management Council staff from 1981-86 and after that as a club executive. They agree to Item 1 to get Item 2, and then they find every way possible to get out of the obligation of Item 1. It’s labor relations 101, but, still, it does not answer the question of why Goodell wants to hear the appeal himself.
This is a good time to mention that the Patriots are owned by Robert Kraft, who has been Goodell’s biggest supporter among the owners. I am not sure this additional exposure of his broadside to Kraft is in his best interests. Talk around the League is that Kraft believes Goodell betrayed him by taking a hard stand against his team. That does not bode well for the Commissioner. Another round of TV negotiations will start soon, and Kraft is head of the TV committee who must work closely with the Commissioner. If Kraft bails from the committee, Goodell might find some of his support among the other owners evaporating.
Some praise Goodell for not playing favorites with such men as Kraft and attempting to paint himself as the Commissioner for the benefit of all. If the courts uphold whatever decision Goodell makes in the Patriots appeal, then he deserves credit. However, as we have shown, the NFLPA has been very successful at having arbitrators and courts reduce suspensions. Such a clear target as Goodell’s broadside encourages them to pull out all their legal weaponry once again and fire at will. And this time, it just might be Goodell’s ship that sinks to the bottom of the sea.