Firn ’16: Morality, legality and the NFL

Sports Columnist
Friday, December 5, 2014

On Nov. 18, the NFL announced that Adrian Peterson would be suspended indefinitely for whipping his four-year-old son back in September. Citing the brutality of Peterson’s offense and his subsequent lack of remorse, commissioner Roger Goodell brought down the hammer on AP, reaffirming the league’s commitment to standards of player conduct. For the most part, public opinion emphatically nodded its head. Finally, a superstar athlete was held accountable for his actions. But public opinion is selectively blind. And if no one else will say it, I will: Yet again, Goodell got it wrong.

It’s really no surprise — Goodell has been bungling big decisions his entire tenure. Peterson’s case is just the latest in a laundry list of controversies: spy-gate, Bounty-gate, concussion-gate, replacement-referees-during-the-lockout-gate. How many gates does one guy get?
Let me be clear: Adrian Peterson is at fault, and by no means am I absolving him of blame. There’s a conversation to be had about our national stance on corporal punishment, but it’s pretty clear that Peterson’s reckless and vicious behavior — stuffing leaves in the child’s mouth and leaving dozens of welts — overstepped the bounds of reasonable, parental discipline. Peterson alone is responsible for his actions. No argument here.

But even if you think AP deserves his punishment, it was almost certainly levied for the wrong reasons. Do the ends justify the means? You may look at the evidence and scream “yes.” But when those means establish a pattern of procedural injustice, the answer has to be no. Only Goodell could take a wrongdoer like Peterson and turn him into a victim, and that’s exactly what’s happened. The commissioner’s transgressions are two-fold: imposing an inconsistent and arbitrary discipline process for the sake of maintaining appearances, and authorizing his own power as the morality police in a misguided attempt to prove that the NFL cares.

Let’s recap. After Peterson’s arrest, the league made a deal to place him on the rarely used commissioner’s exempt list. This move allowed Peterson to collect paychecks, but prevented him from playing while the case navigated the courts. Still, Peterson was assured that he would be reinstated if his felony child-abuse charges were legally resolved. Though charges were pled down to misdemeanor reckless assault, Goodell defaulted on that deal and suspended Peterson indefinitely. Every step of the way, the commissioner’s authority has gone unchecked.

Ostensibly, the league is trying to send the message that athletes can’t misbehave with impunity, but that’s exactly what Goodell has been allowed to do, and it’s not the first time. By all accounts, Goodell did his best to sweep the Ray Rice debacle under the rug, making his own credibility laughable.

After botching Rice’s case, Goodell hastily created a new domestic violence policy to prove his disciplinary chops. Even though Peterson’s offense occurred before implementation of this policy, he was punished under its terms. I’m no lawyer, but sounds like an ex post facto law to me. “The decision by the NFL to suspend Adrian Peterson is another example of the credibility gap that exists between the agreements they make and the actions they take,” the NFL Players’ Association said in a statement. I won’t detail all of Goodell’s Collective Bargaining Agreement violations, but the list can be found in Peterson’s appeal.

The NFL has every right to create and enforce any rule that it collectively bargains, but the commissioner can’t just make up rules because he fears fan and sponsor backlash. How would you feel if you committed a crime that typically warrants a fine, only to have the public freak out and pressure the judicial system to lock you away for life? The NFL is not the legal system, but Goodell is still bound to the terms of its legal standard — the Collective Bargaining Agreement. He negotiated the policies, and he has to stick by them.

Shortly after AP settled his charges, a league executive assured Peterson that his stint on the exempt list would count as time-served toward any possible suspension. Inexplicably, it wasn’t. Yes, he still got paid during the absence, but when you prevent a football player from playing football for four months, that’s worth something. I’m willing to bet that Peterson would have rather played for free than be paid to sit.

Here, Goodell has established a dangerous precedent. The exempt list now allows the league to punish a player doubly by effectively suspending him based on accusation before any legal wrongdoing is established. It’s an abuse of power that borders on anti-American. In the NFL, you’re guilty until proven innocent, and even then, your fate is cloudy.

Consider the case of Greg Hardy, who is currently on the exempt list. He’ll sit out the entire 2014 campaign awaiting criminal trial for domestic violence, attend legal proceedings in the offseason and — if history is any indication — get suspended several additional games regardless of the verdict. If the point of putting AP on the exempt list was to see how the law decided the case, why did Goodell’s decision contradict the court’s? In an effort to appease popular opinion and restore his reputation, Goodell has invented rules to make an example of a star player.

Maybe Peterson deserves it, but that’s part of the problem. Goodell thinks he can get away with a sham disciplinary process because these players have made such big mistakes. I don’t condone child abuse. I don’t mean to deflect attention from a very real issue. But NFL players have rights: Even if someone’s crime is really bad, we can’t just skip the trial.

Still, there’s a larger issue here: Why does the NFL feel obligated to adjudicate on moral issues in the first place? From a business perspective, Goodell fears that the NFL’s association with AP’s legally sanctioned yet socially distasteful behavior will diminish the value of its brand. Ultimately, Peterson was suspended not for criminal wrongdoing, but for violating the public’s moral standard.

If your policy is not to cheer for jerks, stop watching professional sports. Travis Henry fathered 10 children with nine women — should we suspend him for irresponsibility? Ban Tiger Woods for infidelity? When Goodell created the player conduct policy in 2007 and started dropping the hammer on the likes of Pacman Jones, he wrongfully took it upon himself to levy punishments based not on criminal wrongdoing, but on subjective judgment of players’ personal lives. The league should follow strict procedural guidelines to discipline criminal actions, but why should one man be permitted to condemn the morality of legal, personal choices? Free market forces, not the commissioner, should determine whether the accompanying public relations hit of immorality is truly bad enough to deny men like Peterson a job.

I recognize that the NFL has powerful motivations to control public relations, but the public only expects discipline because the league has set a precedent of operating as the extralegal moral police. Has it gone too far down that road to backtrack? Maybe. But Goodell is only digging himself deeper. The entire process is rife with hypocrisy. It doesn’t seem to bother the commissioner that Nike, a major sponsor, has made millions from child labor overseas — distant, developing-world child abuse generally draws a less visceral reaction from the public, so the league lets it slide.

What Goodell apparently doesn’t realize is that we don’t care if the NFL cares. America doesn’t look toward its most violent sport to provide moral direction or social commentary. Despite the league’s increasingly visible domestic violence crisis, viewership among women has actually climbed in 2014.

None of this is new. Violence was not invented by Rice or Peterson. Rice grew up in a poverty-stricken household — his father was murdered when he was one. Peterson was raised in Texas where he was regularly beaten and whipped by his parents. Of course, these facts don’t excuse their behaviors. But it’s naive to expect NFL players will never hold up a mirror to the social conditions that produced them. Some of these guys will make mistakes. I expect this, and it’s built into my perception of the sport. But would you cheer for AP on fourth-and-goal to decide the Super Bowl for your team? Society views athletes as gladiators, not role models, and to police their morality is just a misguided abuse of power.

The NFL has barged into the American home uninvited. Goodell has entered the foggy space of a socially unresolved domestic issue — corporal punishment is still legal in all 50 states. When Goodell suspended Peterson, he declared unequivocally that one method of childcare is worse than another. And now, the league finds itself on the frontline of a difficult conversation laced with generational, racial and cultural undertones. Goodell’s latest attempt to control personal choice and morality has left the league floundering in a futile attempt to prove that it cares.

I really don’t see how Goodell could survive this latest fiasco. But then again, I said the same thing following the Rice incident. It’s easy to say “AP deserves it — let him burn.” Undeniably, he committed a heinous offense that warrants social revulsion, and it still feels like Peterson eluded proper legal consequences. But our emotions about his crime shouldn’t obscure Goodell’s wrongdoing. Peterson deserves to pay for his sin, but not for Rice’s, Goodell’s or society’s. There is a process, and the commissioner ignores it. He was paid $44 million (!) last year to handle these thorny issues, and he continues to bungle the decisions. Simply put, Goodell has lost control of the league. It becomes clearer with every misstep — now more than ever, the NFL has a crisis in leadership.

Mike Firn ’16 is ready to stage a coup. Join the cause at