Monday Morning View: Roger Goodell Has Ethical Responsibility in Bounty Suspensions

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Roger Goodell
As NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell has a responsibility to act ethically in bounty scandal suspensions.

We’ve all been following this New Orleans Saints bounty scandal for a while now, and although NFL Commissioner Rodger Goodell recently upheld the four player suspensions in their appeal, the fight is far from over. The NFLPA has now filed a lawsuit on behalf of Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove, and Scott Fujita claiming that Goodell violated the labor agreement in the “investigation and arbitration process.” Jonathan Vilma is currently involved in a separate lawsuit against the NFL.

But I want to back up a little bit. When the news was released that Goodell denied the players’ appeals, he wrote a “public” letter to the players involved that outlined the foundations of his decision. Here is some of the text in case you’ve missed it:

Throughout this entire process, including your appeals, and despite repeated invitations and encouragement to do so, none of you has offered any evidence that would warrant reconsideration of your suspensions. Instead, you elected not to participate meaningfully in the appeal process . . .

Although you claimed to have been ‘wrongfully accused with insufficient evidence,’ your lawyers elected not to ask a single question of the principal investigators, both of whom were present at the hearing (as your lawyers had requested); you elected not to testify or to make any substantive statement, written or oral, in support of your appeal; you elected not to call a single witness to support your appeal; and you elected not to introduce a single exhibit addressing the merits of your appeal. Instead, your lawyers raised a series of jurisdictional and procedural objections that generally ignore the CBA, in particular its provisions governing ‘conduct detrimental’ determinations . . .

In sum, I did not make my determinations here lightly. At every stage, I took seriously my responsibilities under the Collective Bargaining Agreement. I determined the discipline for each of you

(1) only after a long, detailed and professional investigation by NFL Security’s experienced investigators;

(2) only after the results of that investigation were carefully reviewed by an independent expert, former United States Attorney Mary Jo White;

(3) only after I heard the appeals of the Saints’ coaches and staff regarding discipline for their roles in the program;

(4) only after representatives of NFL Security, along with Mr. Pash and Mr. Birch, spoke with Players Association attorneys at length regarding the investigation; and

(5) only after giving each of you multiple opportunities to meet with the NFL investigators and to share with them your version of the events surrounding the program. The suspensions imposed were reasonable action taken to preserve public confidence in, and the integrity of, the game of professional football . . .

While this decision constitutes my final and binding determination under the CBA, I of course retain the inherent authority to reduce a suspension should facts be brought to my attention warranting the exercise of that discretion. The record confirms that each of you was given multiple chances to meet with me to present your side of the story. You are each still welcome to do so.

As I read this for the first time, there were some things that initially struck me as odd. First and foremost is the claim by Goodell that the players “elected not to participate meaningfully in the appeal process.” He goes on to say how their lawyers didn’t question the investigators, the players didn’t testify, witnesses weren’t called, and no evidence was presented to back up their appeal.

Excuse me, Mr. Goodell, but do you know what an “appeal” is?

For one, it is not a trial. It’s not a time when each side makes its case and presents the evidence to the judge. That should have already happened in the initial decision-making process. No, an appeal (generally speaking) is when the appellant tries to show that the verdict or decision reached in the initial trial was based on erroneous facts or legal principles. The court of appeals comes to their decision based on the records established in the original case. Both parties make briefs, or legal arguments, but do not include additional evidence or witnesses.

Now, I know that this is not a U.S. court of law. The NFL Commissioner is granted his power over the league through a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Our friend Aaron Nagler made this perfectly clear over at his NFL blog on Bleacher Report, and as a point of fact he is absolutely correct. However, there are a lot of good reasons for how the judicial system in America operates, which are based on logic and ethics. While it is not the only way to uphold justice, it has many aspects worth emulating, and Goodell should start taking some notes.

Tied into this idea of what Goodell considers an appeal is the implication he made that the players should be proving their innocence. Think about that for a moment – proving innocence. In nations all around the world, a “presumption of innocence” is commonly recognized. “Innocent until proven guilty” is the phrase we often use for this, and there is a reason for it.

Imagine for a moment that you’ve been accused of speeding on the highway. The police officer didn’t use a radar gun or VASCAR device, he just says that he saw you driving awfully fast. How would you prove your innocence? Could you provide proof that your car never went too fast? Perhaps you might have a witness, but what if you didn’t? I don’t think most of us record our driving speeds on a minute-by-minute basis. There’s no way you could provide tangible proof outside of giving a legal statement. Thus, the “burden of proof” falls on the prosecution.

Going back now to the bounty scandal, how could these players provide any hard evidence that they didn’t participate in a bounty program? Take some time to really consider that.

I’ve said from the very beginning that “pay for injury” bounties have no place in the NFL, and it’s a conviction that I still stand behind. But we’ve travelled a long way down the rabbit hole when it comes to this scandal with the Saints. Players and coaches alike should be held accountable for any involvement with a bounty system; however, the sentencing should be done fairly.

I can’t doubt that there was some sort of bounty system in place under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. There’s simply too much evidence pointing to that fact. Where the evidence seems to be falling short is which players were involved and the level of their involvement. While I want players to suffer appropriate consequences for their actions, Goodell has an ethical responsibility to make sure the right players are being penalized.

When originally setting the suspensions for the four Saints players, Goodell made the following statement: “In assessing player discipline, I focused on players who were in leadership positions at the Saints; contributed a particularly large sum of money toward the program; specifically contributed to a bounty on an opposing player; demonstrated a clear intent to participate in a program that potentially injured opposing players; sought rewards for doing so; and/or obstructed the 2010 investigation.”

Anthony Hargrove, now with the Green Bay Packers, suffered the second-highest suspension at eight games. According to the league, he “actively obstructed the league’s 2010 investigation into the program by being untruthful to investigators.” He also “actively participated in the program while a member of the Saints” and “submitted a signed declaration to the league that established not only the existence of the program at the Saints, but also that he knew about and participated in it.”

But that was then, and now the NFL has a slightly different story to tell.

First of all, that signed declaration doesn’t admit participation in the program. (Read it if you haven’t!) Second, the latest controversy over the “Bobby, give me my money” video has the NFL backtracking in a stumbling tap dance around the issue. ESPN NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert sums it up nicely in his article on the matter: “So essentially, again, we’re left to assume that Hargrove was suspended eight games because he denied existence of a bounty program in 2010 — even if there is no evidence that he participated in it or was aware of it. Yikes.”

One simply has to wonder what Roger Goodell is basing his decisions on at this point. Where is the evidence that demonstrates his “clear intent to participate”? Seifert went through some of the documented evidence released by the NFL back in June and noted that plenty of other Saints players are shown to have had more involvement in the program. Why weren’t they suspsended?

Even if we are now boiling everything down to Hargrove’s “cover up” in 2010, there are still plenty of questions to answer. Why was Hargrove specifically targeted with this crime? Did no other player on the team lie about the bounties during that investigation? Were other players even questioned by the NFL? If not, then again, why was Hargrove the only one?  Whether or not his lying is defensible, whether or not he was told to lie by the coaches, this accusation seems very targeted.

And consider this: Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt was suspended for six games this season. That’s two less games than Hargrove, yet there seems to be more proof that Vitt was involved than Hargrove. Not only that, Hargrove’s statement includes Vitt as a coach that told him to initially deny the program’s existence in 2010.

Where is the equity in Goodell’s decisions? Why eight games for Hargrove and six for Vitt?

It just doesn’t make sense. This entire charade seems to have become more of an extension of last year’s labor negotiations than anything else. Did the NFLPA’s initial lawsuit against the NFL questioning Goodell’s arbitration powers lead to this? Probably. But now it seems that Goodell is simply trying to make a power play to reinforce his control over the NFL. Sure, he left the door open to the players to meet with him about their suspensions, but it’s nothing more than veiled bullying. He’s basically telling him that they’ll get what they want, but only if they play by his rules. They have to do what he wants them to do.

I don’t envy Roger Goodell’s position. He has a lot of responsibilities in keeping the NFL running as smoothly and as profitably as possible. There’s a ton of pressure lately with the NFL concussion lawsuits, and this latest scandal has already woven itself into that mess. But he has a responsibility to the owners, coaches, and players to make the right decisions. The CBA may not dictate what is fair or ethical when it comes to Goodell’s powers as Commissioner; nevertheless, it is his duty to act impartially in cases of player discipline.

As a public teacher, my workplace rights and responsibilities are governed by an agreement made between the school district and the teacher’s union. That CBA dictates my pay scale, how many classes I can teach, how many sick days I get, and so forth. But it doesn’t tell me that I have to spend my summer planning for classes and writing curriculum. It doesn’t tell me that I can’t go home at night and grade classwork. In short, it doesn’t tell me how to be a good teacher.

The CBA agreed to by the NFL and NFLPA outlines the powers of the NFL Commissioner, but it doesn’t tell him how to use those powers responsibly. Roger Goodell needs to understand that as the only person passing official judgment in this whole bounty scandal, he has an ethical accountability for what he decides.

It’s a hard thing to be critical of yourself and your decisions, but Goodell needs to do just that. He needs to look inward and ask himself if he is doing the right thing for these players so greatly affected by his verdict. As many have said before, “With great power there must also come great responsibility.”

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Chad Toporski, a Wisconsin native and current Pittsburgh resident, is a writer for AllGreenBayPackers.com. You can follow Chad on twitter at @ChadToporski

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  • Tarynfor12

    “Innocent until proven guilty”

    This means we won’t hang you until you get your chance to dispute,discredit,prove wrong any or all evidence presented to find you guilty of the charges against you.

    In a US Court of any level this is your opportunity and your defense lawyer to create a minimum of reasonable doubt by doing in any way possible to disprove,discredit etc.
    Lets be honest…the majority of people will look at a defendant with a more guilty lean before a trial begins and whisper,”it don’t look good”,”I hope his lawyer is good”…assumptions of guilty or seeing an inability to dispell evidence against.

    I also think that when you Appeal a finding in the court system you ‘do need’ to show new evidence that may do one of the previous to any prior evidence against you.

    Asking for a reduction in the punishment isn’t an Appeal to dispel evidence but a mercy request for what may be considered harsh for the crime.

    As much as the Prosecution needs to prove its case,the defense must also show evidence to contradict and raise reasonable doubt via tangible proof and not because the defendant says “I’m innocent”

    I have read many an article from Packers writers and fans rally to the aid and support of Hargrove.Is it solely because he may play for the Packers or is it due to true sense of injustice perceived from Goodell.

    Like most,I’m not privy to first hand knowledge of the goings on at these meetings where it is thought that no defendant(via Goodell) offered any thing or person to discredit,disprove or even ask for a reduction of punishment but,just the usual rants from the NFLPA and the players that Goodell is a liar and has no evidence and the testimony and even the acceptance of punishment to Peyton and by Peyton and the admittance from them that it existed or exists is all a lie.

    Many scream that this has been happening for a long time and that may be true.However,anytime a change is needed to correct a norm and in this case the ‘safety of players’ is the concern,especially with a lawsuit via the concussions,a precedent will and needs to be installed and the severity of its initial onset must be harsh to garner any value and be a deterrent on any level to succeed.

    The Saints feel they are being singled out and that may be but,if they are,it’s not without their total ignorance of warnings to cease and their inability to maintain an in-house security to prevent leakage.They helped direct the spotlight while being the spotlight darlings and got careless and then..caught.

    Chad used getting a speeding ticket without the use of radar by the police officer.The Officer will use his experience and site his ability to gauge well a speed of a car via redundancy of doing so.The person charged will need to show a total concentration of awareness to their driving.Odds are the driver loses due to the acceptance that the vast majority of them are doing other things than driving.Phone (talking,texting),coffee,eating,air drumming to music etc.The court is more apt to recognize the multi tasking while driving than the inability of an professional to misjudge the speed of a moving car.
    IMO,unless the Officer is put to the test and fails badly the recogizing of speed of moving autos,you will need video proof of not doing any tasks while driving that enabled you to prove the awareness and lack of speed charged.
    Though some feel a reduction of the fine of the citation a victory but still guilty.

    These suspensions may get reduced but the guilty verdict will prevail and the precedent established.

    This is a win-win for the Commissioners Office.

    • Chad Toporski

      “I have read many an article from Packers writers and fans rally to the aid and support of Hargrove.Is it solely because he may play for the Packers or is it due to true sense of injustice perceived from Goodell.”

      I think that is a very valid question, and it’s something I’ve tried to avoid doing. However, as information keeps coming forward, I just can’t help but feel that things don’t really add up. From his written statement to the controversial video footage, the NFL has been losing more of its grip on what the evidence really shows.

      For me the biggest question is truly the inequity of the suspensions. The biggest discrepancy, as I noted, is between the punishments for Hargrove and Vitt.

      The other interesting item of note is that more of the information in this case seems to be centered on Hargrove. We haven’t really seen much in the way of Smith and Fujita, and the most we’ve seen of Vilma are his lawsuits.

      I think this interview of Adam Schefter by Mike & Mike really pinpoints the doubt that people are feeling towards the NFL’s investigation and findings:

      http://espn.go.com/espnradio/play?id=8070934

    • Chad Toporski

      One more comment re: the speeding scenario. Perhaps a bad example… But the idea of a presumption of innocence is still valid and important.

      • Tarynfor12

        For the record..I don’t believe the NFL is lobbing pure clean snow balls..there’s always some slush mixed in for impact purposes.

  • http://None Bearmeat

    Since this has already been a black eye for the entire NFL, but especially the commissioner – it’s only going to get worse.

    Hargrove et all – will all be eligible to play 16 games this year. And next. And maybe the year after that.

    The appeals will drag out in court for a year or more. This PR will only get worse for Roger and Co.

    I do think the suspensions will be served – like fat Pat and K Williams – eventually.

    • Ron LC

      Do you know if they are filing suit in Minnesota? If so, I proclaim you the new Nostrodomus.

      • http://None Bearmeat

        I have no idea where they’ll be filing. I’m assuming in NOLA – which is every bit as left tilted as the Twin Cities – if not moreso.

        I’m just saying I bet there will be an injunction while this is all being sorted out in court. And after quite awhile – when most of them have retired – the players will lose.

        • Ron LC

          Not going to bet against you. Odds would be 100 – 1, at least.

  • Ron LC

    What seems to escape the legal geniuses at the NFLPA is they are slso filing legal action for NFL negligence in the “Concussion Scandal”. It seems to me a win in one equates to a loss in the other. Of couse, I’m not a slimey lawyer who can talk out of both sides of their mouth and their ass at the same time. So, anything is possible.

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