By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Time was, the NFL boasted as loudly and as often about its transparency. About its integrity.
Time was, the NFL and its commissioner could ascribe guilt and enforce heavy-handed punishment to anyone who dared try to keep private communications from seeing the light of day.
My, how times have changed.
Colin Kaepernick has completely turned the tables.
By agreeing to settle Kaepernick’s (and Eric Reid’s) grievance, the NFL ensured that all of the private communications among team owners gathered in the discovery phase of the process will never see the light of day. By the NFL’s own standards, this alone is a confirmation of guilt from the league.
Alas, PR campaigns being what they are, and human nature being what it is, the confidential nature of the resolution won’t do much to change too many people’s minds about the matter. People decided what to believe long ago, and the fact that no concrete evidence of anything is expected to be publicized, nobody will be forced to deal with the inconvenience of potentially having to change positions.
Still, Kaepernick’s victory has to be seen as yet another hit against a league and a commissioner that has time and time again proven incapable of admitting any wrongdoing in any scenario at any moment in time. From botching a domestic violence case like Ray Rice, to later botching a near-identical domestic abuse case like Josh Brown, to failing badly in another case of a player — Kareem Hunt — committing an act of violence on a woman, to wrongly issuing heavy-handed punishments to the Saints and Tom Brady and Ezekiel Elliott, the league and the commissioner have always hid behind a dishonest claim of integrity.
If they weren’t already, this week’s news means those days are officially over.
Time and time again, Roger Goodell pledged that the league sought nothing more than to achieve transparency. Even more often, Goodell spoke proudly of the highest level of integrity which guided the league in all endeavors.
Given that the league just paid Kaepernick a large sum of money to end his fight, one can reasonably surmise that the next time Goodell says the word “integrity,” it will ring even hollower than usual.
“All my years being in the league, I never received more emotional mail from people than I did about that issue. ‘If any of your players ever do that, we are never coming to another Giants game.’ It wasn’t one or two letters. It was a lot. It’s an emotional, emotional issue for a lot of people, more so than any other issue I’ve run into.”
–New York Giants co-owner John Mara, November 2017
After all, if the private communications of the team owners only showed that those billionaires acted with the highest level of dignity, honesty and honor, then the league would have little issue dragging this case out as long as it took to win it. The league’s history shows that it’s willing to spend endless sums of money for as many years as a player is willing to try to keep up. Few, if any, players have the wherewithal and the means to outlast the NFL.
This case, though, was the exception.
If so inclined, one could surmise that perhaps this is a new era for the NFL, one where being litigious to no end is not seen as a fruitful quest. One where quietly resolving a matter is considered as a preferable route instead of paying the highest-priced lawyer to go for blood.
Or, if one were more reasonably inclined, one could see this as a case that the NFL either knew it couldn’t win or sought to save itself — and its owners — the embarrassment that accompanies the PR disaster of having private conversations turned public. Or both.
“No, I didn’t. We did the study, the research, and we weren’t interested. … No, I’m not explaining it. I just said what it is.”
–Jaguars executive vice president of football Tom Coughlin, September 2017
In essence, the NFL owners didn’t want to turn their cell phones over to investigators.
Goodell has not treated such decisions with leniency in the past.
(The Friday afternoon news dump was a nice homage to unflattering decisions of yesteryear.)
But in this case, just as he did a few weeks back during his press conference in Atlanta, Goodell will insist that the league did nothing wrong. He’ll surely suggest that the league had nothing to hide.
“Not a lot of time to get a brand new QB and a system installed and taught in a couple days. He’s been talked about and discussed, but we’ll probably go in a different direction.”
—Redskins head coach Jay Gruden, December 2018
The commissioner knows that enough people in this country will believe him, and that those who don’t? Well, they’ve never had much power to effect any sort of change anyway.
That part … well, it’s true. The NFL, as always, holds all the power. But that shouldn’t stop the record from showing that in this case, Colin Kaepernick won. The league sought to have the case dismissed last August, likely looking ahead and seeing a dead end, but that request was denied. Since then, the league had to have known that this date was coming … and the perfect time for this agreement to be reached would be post-Super Bowl, when players and coaches and executives aren’t around, and when the commissioner doesn’t have to face any questions in front of a national audience.
“Did you just listen to that question I just answered? I got three years invested in Brett Hundley. Two years invested in Joe Callahan. The quarterback room is exactly where it needs to be. OK?”
–Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, October 2017
So, they paid a large sum of money to a person they’d rather not validate. In doing so, they ensured that anyone who wants to believe there was no malfeasance can continue to believe whatever they choose to believe. Absent someone violating the confidentiality agreement, no one will ever have to confront the facts.
But that doesn’t change this fact, that this grievance case for collusion is over for one reason and one reason only. The NFL — its owners, and its commissioner — couldn’t bear to open the shades to show the world at large what goes on behind closed doors.