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Roger Goodell Undermined by His Own Incompetence and Authoritarianism


The NFL used its leverage in collective bargaining to give the commissioner, at least if you view the relevant provision in isolation, the essentially unfettered ability to unilaterally suspend any player any length of time for any offense based on no standards whatsoever. The black fly in Roger Goodell’s chardonnay is that he’s abused his powers so badly that he often can’t get his suspensions applied in a timely matter:

United States District Court Judge Amos Mazzant ruled today in favor of Ezekiel Elliott, granting him a preliminary injunction against the NFL. It means means that the Cowboys running back’s six-game suspension is blocked, at least for now.

Mazzant was asked to evaluate the NFL’s investigation, not determine Elliott’s guilt or innocence. “Based upon the preliminary injunction standard,” Mazzant wrote, “the Court finds, that Elliott did not receive a fundamentally fair hearing, necessitating the Court grant the request for preliminary injunction.”

You’ll note that in the other major North American sports leagues, you generally don’t have players going to court trying to stop suspensions, and getting injunctions to stop them going into effect for whole seasons. And this is because the other leagues actually tried to get some buy-in from players for their disciplinary process and don’t seem to to revel in treating the players (or, at least players who aren’t Alex Rodriguez) unfairly.

Especially in the wake of Ballghazi, I heard several interviews with NFLPA members, asking them why they would give Roger Goodell a plausible argument to have nearly unlimited disciplinary authority. In every case, the answer was essentially “the league said it was non-negotiable and we didn’t like it but didn’t see having the support to strike over it.” (Incidentally, one of my favorite examples of people otherwise being on the left turning into pro-management lickspittles in the context of professional sports is when apologists who would otherwise know better channel Rufus Peckham and assert that if there’s a provision in a collective bargaining agreement players must therefore affirmatively favor it. Bonus points if this logic is used to argue that salary caps don’t actually harm the interests of the players, given that the two hard caps in major North American pro sports were obtained through using scabs to break a strike and a season-long lockout.) The players had to take it — but they also have no inherent stake in defending the process or avoiding legal attacks on it.

And, needless to say, any chance of getting support from the players ended given Goodell’s maximalist interpretation of his powers and routine ineptitude and abuse of his authority. Another point I heard from several NFLPA members is that they acquiesced to giving broad formal power to the commissioner in part because they felt that Tagliabue had for the most part treated them fairly, and they didn’t expect Goodell to act the way he has. There have been a lot of apparently random suspensions and unfair processes, but obviously Ballghazi was going to ensure a heavily adversarial relationship over discipline going forward. The suspension of Brady was so ludicrously disproportionate and the underlying investigation such an embarrassing shambles that Goodell had to make a mockery of any due process protections by unilaterally adjudicating the appeal to his own suspension if he wanted it to hold up. He ultimately had his formal authority upheld 2-1 by the circuit court, but at the price of the players having every incentive to attack and undermine the NFL’s disciplinary process with any tools available.

I’m not saying that the Elliott suspension is as bad as the Brady suspension. The accused conduct is more serious (assuming arguendo that it’s the province of the NFL to suspend players for off-field conduct) and the suspension not as obviously disproportionate on its face. And Goodell at least agreed to have a third party hear the appeal. But the NFL’s disciplinary process is so transparently arbitrary and capricious, and Goodell’s past abuses of power so glaring, that players have no respect for it — and they’re entirely right not to.  And unlike ordinary workers, they have effective access to the courts. The NFL will likely get the Elliott suspension to stick in 2018, but at great financial expense and the additional expense of keeping Elliott’s alleged domestic abuse in the news for another year, not to mention an issue that is going to make the next round of collective bargaining more difficult.

In Whigs and Hunters, E.P. Thompson explained why the rule of law emerged in a pre-democratic context:

Most men have a strong sense of justice, at least with regard to their own interests. If the law is evidently partial and unjust, then it will mask nothing, legitimize nothing, contribute nothing to any class’s hegemony. The essential precondition for the effectiveness of law, in its function as ideology, is that it shall display an independence from gross manipulation and shall seem to be just.

This is a lesson Roger Goodell and the owners never learned, and it’s going to make a lot of lawyers richer and generate a lot of bad publicity for a league that doesn’t really need more of it.

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