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Thursday, April 08, 2010
Should the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy Also Apply to Franchise?

Several recent events have placed the Pittsburgh Steelers’ upcoming season in serious peril. Before even a single down of football is played, the Steelers, one of the NFL’s most storied franchises, is facing the potential loss of two impact players: franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes.

Roethlisberger, who last year was accused of sexually assaulting an employee at a Nevada resort as part of a civil complaint, is now facing similar allegations stemming from a recent alleged restroom altercation with a 20-year-old college student in a Georgia nightclub. Holmes, who has established a well-documented arrest record since he entered the league in 2006, is currently linked to an alleged assault of a woman at an Orlando nightclub. While the Steelers will have to deal with the reality of both Roethlisberger and Holmes potentially facing some type of discipline from the Commissioner’s Office and the resulting fan backlash, the franchise is lucky that the Steelers as an organization will not be subject to punishment as well.

One of the hallmarks of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s tenure is the high priority he places on protecting the league’s public reputation. Goodell assumed the NFL’s top position during a time when many of its players were constantly portraying the league in a negative light. To help change the public’s perception of the NFL, Goodell spearheaded the creation of the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy.

The currently implemented Personal Conduct Policy explicitly applies to players, coaches and “all others privileged to work in the National Football League.” Pursuant to this policy, “[a]ll persons associated with the NFL are required to avoid conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League.” The policy allows for Commissioner Goodell to discipline both Roethlisberger and Holmes even if neither is found guilty of their respective allegations. Both can be disciplined even if there are no convictions because, as Goodell asserts, playing in the NFL is a privilege, not a right; therefore anyone subject to the policy may face serious consequences if he or she engages in conduct that is perceived to be detrimental to the integrity of the league.

As the policy is now written, Goodell cannot discipline individual franchises for allowing its players to engage in impermissible conduct. This is because the policy on its face does not explicitly empower Goodell to penalize a franchise. However, directly punishing a team is not unprecedented, as the Commissioner disciplined both head coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots in 2007 for spying on an opponent in an attempt to learn their signals. However the Patriots situation did not involve player discipline issues. Instead, the infraction committed by the Patriots was interfering with NFL rules; if the Commissioner attempted to take action against the Steelers, it would be punishment for the franchise’s inability to control its players’ off the field conduct, something that was never an issue when Dan Rooney oversaw the team. One characteristic that these situations do share, however, is that both deal with issues that perceivably impact the integrity of the game, something that the policy was implemented to protect.

While the current policy as written does not allow the Commissioner to discipline a franchise, implementing a new version that subjects franchises to the Personal Conduct Policy would easily fix this problem. If the league chooses to adopt such a new rule, the NFL will be empowering Goodell with sweeping authority similar to the power that was given to Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Major League Baseball’s first commissioner. However, such authority was only granted to Landis when baseball was marred in the Black Sox scandal, arguably baseball’s darkest days. The only issue with providing Goodell this power is persuading franchises to go along with such a rule, and avoiding a challenge from the NFLPA through labor law and relevant provisions of the CBA.

Although it is highly unlikely that franchises would allow the Commissioner to possess such expansive power, this type of development would force franchises to become vastly more proactive and vigilant in keeping players out of troublesome situations. Franchises, now with more of a vested interest in supervising its players, would most likely step up preventive measures to avoid being subject to league discipline. Such measures may include routinely providing players with a personal security detail or heavily fining players for conduct that is adverse to the policy. However all of this must be done in the context of the current CBA to prevent a union challenge. While placing a responsibility on the franchise may sound like a good idea, Goodell most likely does not want to disturb league-owner solidarity with such a rule as the NFL prepares for a potentially prolonged negotiation with the NFLPA.

At this point most of Goodell’s attention is probably focused on negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the players association. However, this emerging trend of Steelers players garnering negative headlines may merit his concern, as player discipline issues seem to be a persisting problem in the NFL despite the Commissioner’s best efforts.

At this point local authorities have turned over their evidence against Big Ben to the District Attorney’s Office and Holmes’ attorney maintains that the wide receiver will be exonerated. Goodell has already made it clear that he is dissatisfied with Roethlisberger's conduct and would meet with the star quarterback at a later time. Given Goodell’s comment, one would not be surprised if the Commissioner punishes both Roethlisberger and Holmes under the policy. What is not clear is whether Goodell plans on attempting to also directly discipline the Steelers. Again, a reading of the policy does not lend itself to penalizing organizations, so it may be a stretch to punish an entire team. However Goodell prides himself on safeguarding the integrity of the NFL, so the notion of the league amending the Personal Conduct Policy to allow for team discipline may not be as farfetched a prediction as it sounds.


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