BOSTON (CBS) — The furor over Roger Goodell being incapable of serving as a fair and just overseer of NFL discipline is certainly nothing new, but the prominence of the perpetrator and the relative meaninglessness of the alleged illegal action has made DeflateGate into the commissioner’s biggest mess yet.
Yet while everyone hoots and hollers about all the wrong things Goodell has done in this case (lying, for one) as well as in the past — Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and the Saints, just to name a few — very few have offered suggestions for solutions.
And though this may be on its surface the most absurd statement ever made, it’s nevertheless worth stating.
The NFL could stand to learn from the NHL.
Yes, one of those sports leagues is worth a staggering number of billions of dollars while the other one is still trying to make hockey work in Glendale, Ariz., and Sunrise, Fla. And yes, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has amazingly been at the helm during three lockouts, missing one full season (2004-05) and two half-seasons (1994-95, 2012-13). And yes, the NHL only has three teams worth at least $1 billion, while the NFL has 25 such teams.
Nobody is saying the NHL is a model organization, or that Bettman is a model commissioner, or that the leagues operate on the same level. Far from it.
But in one area — the area of discipline — the NHL has it right.
It was not very long ago at all that the NHL’s system for discipline, headed by Colin Campbell, was just as bad or even worse than the NFL’s. Sean Avery was getting suspended six games for saying “sloppy seconds,” while Matt Cooke was not getting so much as a slap on the wrist for delivering what was essentially a career-ending cheap shot to star forward Marc Savard.
It was that Cooke hit on Savard, as well as leaked emails that put some shame on Campbell, that really spurred change for the NHL. Campbell had finally been exposed for doing such a poor, inconsistent job in doling out punishment (sound familiar?) that he left his position in 2011.
At that point, the NHL decided to completely overhaul its process. They brought in Brendan Shanahan, a 21-year NHL veteran, to head the department. Shanahan immediately set out to be two things: firm and transparent.
The first part came in the form of an avalanche of suspensions in the 2011 preseason. Ten games for boarding, 12 games for a headshot, nine games for leaving the bench during a fight, eight games for a different headshot, seven games for hitting from behind — all in Shanahan’s first two weeks on the job. The man was not messing around, and he quickly earned the nickname “Shanahammer.”
Granted, many of those suspended games were preseason games, but the message was clear from the start that Shanahan was not going to let players get away with what they used to get away with. It’s not all that dissimilar to the start of Goodell’s tenure, when he issued lengthy suspensions to Adam “Pacman” Jones, Chris Henry and Tank Johnson. Of course, these weren’t for actions on the field, so it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. But we’ll get to that later.
On Shanahan’s second mission is where the NFL can learn the most. For each suspension issued, Shanahan made a brief video, in which he explained in great detail what went into the decision. He detailed the circumstances that led to each illegal hit. He laid out the offending player’s history of illegal hits. He would include how the punished player tried to excuse his actions and whether or not he found it to be a valid excuse. Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t.
It was so simple.
Over time, the “Shanahammer” relaxed, and other members of the Department of Player Safety would assume video explanation duties. Shanahan left his post in April 2014, but the DPS remains healthy. The NHL doesn’t always get its suspensions (and non-suspensions) right, but there at least appears to be a very earnest effort to try to be right. That’s often more than the NFL can say.
Now, of course, there is the obvious. The situations dealt with in the NFL differ greatly from illegal checks in a hockey game. Those good old Canadian boys tend to not get into too much trouble off the ice (though good old American boy Patrick Kane may end up stretching the veracity of that statement). So in dealing with a Ray Rice situation, or Adrian Peterson, or Ben Roethlisberger, or Donte Stallworth, it’s not quite as simple as observing a video replay and making a decision. (OK, it was that simple with Ray Rice, because, you know, there was a video. Therefore, an additional key objective for the NFL would be to not try to launch a cover-up under any circumstance.)
So if the NFL were to create, say, a Department of Player Discipline, it would have to be a bit more complex than the NHL’s. But the key would be the transparency.
Remember just a few short months ago, when Ndamukong Suh was suspended for a playoff game but then a behind-closed-doors appeal process allowed the suspension to be lifted? What happened there? We’ll never know.
And if it weren’t for Judge Richard Berman ordering the release of previously sealed documents, we’d never know just how poorly such a high-profile suspension appeal process was run. But now we do, and Judge Barbara Jones’ ruling on the Ray Rice appeal helped uncover that information as well. We know pretty clearly that the commissioner is without a doubt unfit to serve in such a role.
There’s no shame in that. OK, there is plenty of shame in that, but Goodell has been in charge of the league during a period of ludicrous earnings. He’s helped to make the owners very rich. He headed the league when it signed a $27 billion TV deal. He won the lockout negotiations in 2011. His economics degree has served him well.
But he has no law background, and it shows with each judge’s decision to overturn his ruling. Goodell has stated that the commissioner has had discipline power for decades, yet he leaves out the fact that Paul Tagliabue, commissioner from 1989-2006, was a lawyer. And Pete Rozelle, commissioner from 1960-89, did not oversee the juggernaut that is today’s NFL.
Times have changed, and so asking for an open, honest and inherently fair process for player discipline should not be too much to ask. The NFL needs a complete overhaul. The NFL needs to stop wasting the time of real judges to resolve football disputes. The NFL needs to stop pretending as if lawyers paid by the NFL will act independently of their clients.
It’s a joke. But it can be fixed.
Establish a Department of Player Discipline, update established guidelines for player conduct on and off the field, assign somebody with a legal background to head the department, surround him with smart and fair football men, and most importantly, be as transparent as possible. The cloak-and-dagger, protect-the-shield, “integrity integrity integrity” thing just is not working. And when the curtain is peeled back, we are able to see an accomplished attorney like Jeffrey Kessler run circles around the NFL. It’s almost too easy.
So, Roger, it’s time to make the change. Overhaul the system, admit you’re not the right man for that part of the job, and prove that when you say you want to “preserve the integrity of the game,” you actually mean it. Doing so would go a long way toward earning back all the trust you’ve lost over the past three years.