When it Comes to Punishment, the NFL and Roger Goodell are Making it Up as They Go

Rusty Hardin says the NFL's handling of Adrian Peterson shows, when it comes to discipline, the NFL is making it up as it goes.
Rusty Hardin says the NFL's handling of Adrian Peterson shows, when it comes to discipline, the NFL is making it up as it goes.
AP Photo/ The Courier, Michael Minasi

The surveillance video is chilling. It's late February, and we see then-Ravens running back Ray Rice drag the limp carcass of his then--fiancée (now wife), Janay Palmer, from an Atlantic City casino elevator and plop her down on the floor like luggage. She's unconscious, and her feet are actually blocking the elevator door from closing. Rice holds her purse in his hand and appears to casually explain some version of the situation to a hotel security guard.

In the film, we are seeing the aftermath of assault. Rice's eventual arrest shortly after that fateful February evening essentially confirmed that. Our mind's eye fills in the rest of the blanks.

Acting under the autonomous control granted him via the NFL's player conduct policy, commissioner Roger Goodell eventually handed Rice a suspension of two games for assaulting Palmer, a paltry slap on the wrist considering that the league routinely suspends first-time weed smokers for four games. Sadly, two-game suspensions were at that time the norm for first-time domestic assault offenders like Rice.

"We can't just make up the discipline," Goodell said at a press conference after handing down Rice's penalty. "It has to be consistent with other cases and it was consistent with other cases."

Six weeks later, though, on September 8, TMZ would release a second surveillance video of Rice and Palmer that might, this time showing what occurred inside the elevator. The damning footage showed Rice blasting Palmer across the face with a stiff right hand, knocking her out cold. Public outrage ensued, and NFL player conduct discipline would change forever.

Cornered by an angry public, Goodell claimed ignorance, saying the league had not yet seen this harrowing second video when it gave Rice a two-game suspension back in July. The damage, however, was done. Fans saw Goodell as either a liar or a boob (or both). Not only was Rice's initial two-game suspension viewed as a joke, but now Goodell was getting schooled by TMZ and the nar-rative that the commissioner didn't really care about domestic violence had disturbing -visual proof.

For Goodell, this was the bad time. Perhaps sensing his job (and the accompanying $44 million annual salary) slipping away, the commissioner began maniacally rewriting his own set of conduct rules. Yes, the guy who in July justified Rice's light two-game sentence by shrugging and stating that he "can't just make up the discipline" began totally making up the discipline.

First, Goodell increased Rice's suspension from two games to "indefinite," even though Rice had actually admitted to exactly what was seen in the video in fact-finding interviews with Goodell before his initial two-game suspension. (So, yes, Rice was essentially being suspended again for the same crime, the very definition of "making it up as you go.")

Next, Goodell announced a new revision to the conduct policy (again, a fancy way of saying he was "making up the discipline") under which a first-time offender for domestic assault and other violent conduct would now get a minimum six-game suspension.

At its core, increasing punishment for domestic abusers is a good, sensible thing. After all, the public outcry began because Rice's two-game suspension was seen as too lenient. However, when Goodell is the one executing the plan, optimism that the plan will be adhered to and executed fairly is indeed fleeting.

The arbitrary nature of Goodell's second suspension of Rice was validated when U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones, who heard Rice's appeal in early November, reversed Goodell's decision and immediately reinstated the running back. Goodell's basis for a second suspension was his contention that Rice misled him as to what occurred in the elevator. Jones disagreed.

"In this arbitration, the NFL argues that Commissioner Goodell was misled when he disciplined Rice the first time. Because, after careful consideration of all of the evidence, I am not persuaded that Rice lied to, or misled, the NFL at his June interview, I find that the indefinite suspension was an abuse of discretion and must be vacated," Jones's decision stated.

"[The imposition] of a second suspension based on the same incident and the same known facts about the incident, was arbitrary," Jones also wrote.

This is the second time that a third party has been forced to clean up a high-profile Goodell-imposed discipline fiasco, the first occurring in 2012 when former commissioner Paul Tagliabue heard the appeals of New Orleans Saints players suspended for the infamous "Bountygate" scandal. Upon appeal, Tagliabue vacated all the players' suspensions, saying the Saints' coaches were primarily responsible.

As Goodell's ability to properly administer his own policy falls further into question, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is hopeful that the trend of -reversed Goodell rulings -continues.

Goodell's first chance to flex his newly created "authority muscles" under the revised policy came just a few weeks ago when Peterson pled no contest in Montgomery County on November 4 to a misdemeanor charge for an incident in which Peterson disciplined his four-year-old son by repeatedly hitting him a small branch, breaking the child's skin and leaving several marks.

The initial Peterson indictment by law enforcement for child abuse came in early September, and Peterson had since been sidelined on the commissioner's exempt list (and getting paid) for ten weeks as the court case played out, a hiatus everyone agreed was a good idea given the controversial nature of Peterson's actions.

 

Once the case was resolved, though, with the outcome being a misdemeanor, Peterson hoped to return to the field, with the league seeing the ten weeks he'd already sat out as time served in lieu of a suspension.

However, Goodell saw things differently, and announced on November 18 that Peterson would be suspended without pay for the rest of the season and could apply for reinstatement on April 15, 2015. In a scolding letter, Goodell said that Peterson had not shown a proper level of contrition in the wake of the charges, even though Peterson had expressed remorse publicly on multiple occasions.

"You have shown no meaningful remorse for your conduct," wrote Goodell. "When indicted, you acknowledged what you did but said that you would not 'eliminate whooping my kids' and defended your conduct in numerous published text messages to the child's mother. You also said that you felt 'very confident with my actions because I know my intent.' These comments raise the serious concern that you do not fully appreciate the seriousness of your conduct, or even worse, that you may feel free to engage in similar conduct in the future."

The only thing missing from the letter was a picture of Goodell's finger condescendingly wagging next to a disgusted frown.

Rusty Hardin, Peterson's Houston-based attorney, was outraged by what he sees as Peterson's being punished a second time for a transgression that at best falls in a gray area -- the disciplining of one's kids.

"Adrian hasn't been able to play for [ten] weeks, he's had his reputation go into tatters in the public, he's had sponsors of over $4 million a year all abandon him," Hardin said. "Do we really want the NFL deciding what the appropriate discipline is for a child? I don't think so."

Reportedly, after the resolution of the court case, Goodell wanted Peterson to fly to NFL headquarters to meet with him and a handpicked group of child-abuse experts on November 14, a meeting that is not remotely part of the normal discipline process. Peterson chose not to attend, which some have speculated may have contributed to his punishment, another example of Goodell's random discipline methods.

"That Friday hearing was something they just invented out of whole cloth; that's not the way the procedure is supposed to go," said Hardin. "So a ballplayer is supposed to go into the commissioner's office and have a bunch of experts examine him, with no rules? Tell me any time that's ever happened!"

Hardin also takes issue with the June 2014 timing of Peterson's transgression occurring two months before Goodell's massive policy revisions. "These guys are making this stuff up as they go along," lamented Hardin. "[Peterson's] conduct occurred before they had any of these rules, and then they create these rules afterwards."

"We can talk all day about how horrible it is for any injury to be suffered by a child, and I totally agree," Hardin continued. "My wife taught preschool, four-year-olds, for 18 years. I started out as a teacher. We all care deeply about children. But Adrian made a mistake, and he owned up to it."

For his part, Peterson reportedly grew up in a house where corporal discipline was normal. Peterson himself has said that he feels that type of structure is what made him the person he is today, by many accounts a grounded and respectful young man with a famously firm handshake.

Jim Ross, WWE Hall of Fame announcer and one of the best-known supporters of Oklahoma football, remembers Peterson from his time as an undergraduate in Norman.

"Why do people know all about the Peterson Handshake?" Ross asks rhetorically. "Because he meets people and respectfully shakes their hand. Adrian's a respectful guy who's made mistakes, but who hasn't?"

"He's a product of his upbringing, like a lot of us," Ross continued. "But Adrian's not a mean-spirited person."

Hardin's final salvo as to why his client is being suspended into next spring is the most ominous message of all for NFL players:

"[Goodell is] doing it solely in response to the human cry regarding [his] screw-ups. I've said all along that [Peterson] has been thrown into the maelstrom of something that is not comparable to what he did but because the NFL looked so bad in the way they handled [Ray Rice]...they just flat-out lied about what they knew when they imposed their first punishment [on Rice], and when they got their hand caught in the cookie jar, they decided to swing at everybody."

In short, Roger Goodell thinks that the more stiffly he punishes players for their misdeeds, the quicker the public's disapproval of him will wane.

For now, outside of his letter chastising Peterson, Roger Goodell has been virtually silent in recent weeks. Publicly, the league office has been behind him in lockstep on the new conduct policy, and did not respond to requests for comments about Peterson's punishment or Hardin's contentions.

However, the fact that Goodell's mishandling of Peterson's and Rice's penalties has somehow made either man a sympathetic figure, considering the graphic nature of their wrongdoings, tells you everything you need to know about how badly the commissioner has botched his own policy.

Peterson, Rice and Goodell have all made and admitted to egregious, gross mistakes in their respective jobs as a parent, a spouse and a captain of industry. So why do only two of them pay for their mistakes?

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at sean.pendergast@cbsradio.com.


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