Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Roger Goodell – the law when it comes to the National Football League

Earlier this week arbitrator Stephen Burbanks that when it comes to running the National Football League – NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has absolute power.

The National Football League Players Association appealed Goodell’s decision to suspend New Orleans Saints defensive team captain Jonathan Vilma for the entire 2012 season and defensive end Will Smith (also still a member of the Saints) for four games. Former Saints defensive end Anthony Hargrove, now with Green Bay, was suspended eight games, and linebacker Scott Fujita, now with Cleveland, was suspended three games for involvement in the program while they were playing for the Saints. The four players were suspended by Goodell for their role in the Saints bounty system a program that focused on specific opposing players for injury and included cash payouts.

In November 2002, a federal court appointed Burbank as special master of the National Football League.
In that role, Burbank arbitrates certain categories of disputes between the NFL Players Association and the NFL Management Council under a consent decree and collective bargaining agreement.

Burbanks ruled that as commissioner, Roger Goodell has the right to discipline NFL players when he announced he was suspending four NFL players for their role in the Saints hit for hire program.
Reaction from the NFL, the NFLPA and the NFL Coaches Association was interesting and telling.

“System Arbitrator Stephen Burbank upheld the commissioner’s authority under the Collective Bargaining Agreement to impose “conduct detrimental” discipline on players who provided or offered financial incentives to injure opponents. He also upheld the commissioner’s authority to impose such discipline against players who obstructed a league investigation. The System Arbitrator thus confirmed the commissioner’s authority to suspend Mr. Fujita, Mr. Smith and Mr. Vilma. He invited the commissioner to clarify the precise basis for his discipline of Mr. Hargrove who, among other things, was found to have lied to the league’s investigators and obstructed their investigation,” the NFL announced following the ruling.

NFL Coaches Association executive director David Cornwell offered this gem: “After destroying the best opportunity in the history of sports for NFL players to maximize the economic benefits of playing the game, NFLPA leadership has now turned its sights on destroying the bond between NFL players and NFL coaches. Its strategy in the bounty investigation has been to throw coaches under the bus to save the players involved.

“As the NFLPA was suing NFL coaches and sponsoring the declaration of Anthony Hargrove, in which it encouraged a young man to admit to lying and then tell a new lie by claiming that his coaches made him do it, we now learn that DeMaurice Smith was scheming for the release of the Gregg Williams tape because he thought players would look better if he made Williams look worse. The NFLPA’s “my coach made me do it” defense is petty and irresponsible and is further evidence that union leadership is not up to the task of leadership.“

As was the case in March 2011 when Smith refused to review additional league financial disclosures because he thought ignorance gave the NFLPA the upper hand in its' failing public relations strategy, the NFLPA’s “no evidence” defense in the bounty investigation has been exposed as nothing more than a directive from Smith that players not meet with the Commissioner and not look at records uncovered in the NFL’s investigation so that Smith’s strategy of blaming their coaches would have the illusion of merit.”

Not to be outdone the NFLPA said: “The NFL Players Association will appeal today’s decision to the Appeals Panel provided by the CBA for the review of all system arbitrator decisions.

“Any pay-to-injure program runs counter to the health and safety principles we stand for as players. However, none of the players punished in this case have seen a shred of evidence justifying the NFL’s punishment.

“In the opinion, system arbitrator Stephen Burbank wrote, “[I]t is important to emphasize – with respect to all of the Players – that nothing in this opinion is intended to convey a view about the underlying facts or the appropriateness of the discipline imposed.”

“The union believes that the players are entitled to neutral arbitration of these issues under the CBA and will continue to fight for that principle and to protect the fair due process rights of all players.

“In New Orleans, Coach Payton and Coach Vitt and their colleagues across the league have made it clear that NFL coaches do not condone any playing technique or motivational tool that compromises the fundamental principles of fair play and sportsmanship. From Pop Warner to the NFL, accountability is the most important attribute in the bond between coaches and players, but the NFLPA’s defense in the bounty matter is nothing more than finger pointing, which is demeaning to players, offensive to coaches, and destroys the standard of accountability that is expected from a Pro.”

None of the prepared statements dealt with the most important issue – player safety in the National Football League.

The players appeal was ‘interesting’. The Saints head coach Sean Peyton, the team’s general manager, the team’s assistant coach and the team’s former defensive coordinator all admitted the Saints “bounty” program was real. The four football executives all accepted their suspensions.

The players led by Vilma have been steadfast in their denial. While the coaches didn’t point the fingers at any specific players – the coaches haven’t defended the four players Goodell suspended. And if it wasn’t Vilma
and the three other players who were suspended then which players on the Saints (current or former) had participated in the program their coaches have been suspended for? The NFL is in the midst of a massive lawsuit that focuses on player safety. More than 2,200 retired NFL players and their estates are suing the NFL claiming the league willfully withheld critical safety information from players. The lawsuit alleges if the former players had been offered all of the information relating to the inherent safety risks associated with playing football the players may have decided not to play in the National Football League.

Goodell announced during his annual state of the league address at Super Bowl XLVI player safety was his number one goal. The Saints bounty program that suggests the team not only encouraged but paid players for hurting their opponents defies Goodell’s safety first mandate.

The National Football League Players Association’s mandate is to defend the rights of their membership – NFL players. In agreeing to appeal Goodell’s decision to punish the players who played a leadership role in the Saints bounty program the NFLPA is playing both sides of the player safety issue. They are defending those who have been found guilty by the league but in defending their alleged abuse of player safety are in part suggesting player safety isn’t important to the NFLPA.

The NFL is caught between the inevitable rock and a hard place. They are pursuing their primary mandate – defending the rights of NFL players but in doing so are bringing into question how serious the NFLPA is about the issue of player safety. The NFLPA needs to look at the bigger picture, player safety and an even bigger issue – the retired players’ lawsuit. In defending Vilma and company that are inadvertently hurting their ability to defend what must be their number one concern – player safety!

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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