By Alan Resnick / Detroit
Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the National Football League (NFL), is facing some rather uncomfortable questions these days.
Two very public unsavory situations will require him to enforce the league’s Personal Conduct Policy, but while the situations are similar, the outcomes will likely be very different.
In essence, the league’s conduct policy states, “Everyone who is part of the league must refrain from conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the NFL.” This applies to owners, coaches, players, other team employees, game officials, and employees of the league office.
One of the situations involves a player, the other an owner. The player is quarterback Deshaun Watson, who was traded to the Cleveland Browns this past March. While Watson was still a member of the Houston Texans, 24 civil lawsuits were filed against him by multiple massage therapists from the period of March 2020 to March 2021.
The majority of the accusations involved lewd behaviors such as coercing therapists to touch him in a sexual manner, exposing himself, or moving his body in ways that forced masseuses to touch his genitals. Two of the 24 cases claimed sexual assault in the form of forced oral sex.
Although there were a total of 10 criminal complaints against Watson, in March of this year two grand juries in Texas declined to charge him. Watson continues to deny any wrongdoing. Yet on June 21, The New York Times reported that he had reached settlements with 20 of the 24 women who filed sexual misconduct lawsuits against him.
While there are no other pending legal charges against Watson, a Washington Post article dated June 17 reports that the NFL will argue that he should receive a significant suspension for violating the league’s conduct policy. While the length of the suspension is unclear, the article speculates that the NFL will argue that Watson should sit out one full season.
In accordance with the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the NFL and the NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA), the league conducted an investigation of the case, then presented its findings and a recommendation to a disciplinary officer. That officer is Sue L. Robinson, the former U.S. District Judge who was jointly appointed by the NFL and the NFLPA. Robinson will evaluate the evidence and render a decision. (ESPN has reported that Robinson will meet with Watson this week.)
A player can choose to appeal the disciplinary officer’s decision through the NFLPA. And who gets to hear and have full authority over the appeal?
None other than Roger Goodell or his designee.
Under the terms of the CBA, “The decision of the Commissioner or his designee, which may overturn, reduce, modify or increase the discipline previously issued, will be final and binding on all parties.”
Goodell cannot, however, alter a decision to not discipline a player at all. His past actions against players who violated the conduct policy have been, at best, inconsistent.
For example, in 2010, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for six games due to a sexual assault allegation by a 20-year-old college student, even though a prosecutor decided not to pursue charges. The suspension was later reduced to four games.
In 2014, Ray Rice, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, was suspended two games for punching his then-fiancé in an elevator. The entire gruesome incident was caught on video. Rice was subsequently suspended indefinitely, but he appealed and won.
In 2018, Jameis Winston, a quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was suspended for three games for touching an Uber driver “in an inappropriate and sexual manner without her consent.”
Then there is quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who chose to kneel during the National Anthem on September 1, 2016, as a means of protesting the oppression of people of color in this country.
Kaepernick was never suspended by Goodell. He was merely cut by his team, the San Francisco 49ers, and has not played in the NFL since then. Kaepernick subsequently filed a grievance against the NFL for collusion to keep him out of the league. It was settled in 2019 for an undisclosed amount of money.
Now consider the case of Daniel Snyder.
Snyder has owned the Washington Commanders (née Redskins, and Washington Football Team) since 1999. Reasonably knowledgeable fans agree that Snyder has driven a once-revered franchise into the ground with his constant meddling in front office decisions and his antagonistic relationship with the team’s supporters. (Snyder sued season ticket holders who were unable to pay during the recession in the late 2000s, despite his claim that there were over 200,000 people on the season ticket waiting list.)
Snyder is now being accused of creating and fostering a toxic workplace culture within the organization.
In July, 2020, the Washington Post published two exposés on the Commanders’ culture, with 15 women alleging sexual harassment while working for the team. They described being subjected to inappropriate comments about their bodies and clothing, as well as unwanted advances and improper touching by senior executives. It was also reported that there was a lewd video produced internally that pieced together outtakes from a cheerleader photo shoot.
In a subsequent story, the Washington Post reported that in 2009, the Commanders had settled a sexual harassment claim brought against Snyder by a former employee,who received $1.6 million. (Snyder admitted no wrongdoing.)
In August 2020, the NFL began an investigation. On July 1, 2021, the league released a brief summary of its findings, citing bullying, intimidation and a general lack of respect in a "highly unprofessional" workplace. The investigation also found that ownership and senior management paid little or no attention to complaints raised by female employees.
Curiously, the team announced on June 29 that Tanya Snyder, Daniel’s wife, had been promoted to co-CEO and would be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the franchise while her husband focused his energies on getting a new stadium built.
Interestingly enough, no formal report was issued by the NFL on the results of its investigation. The league said that it wanted to protect the privacy and confidentiality of the women who participated. Many of the women, however, have argued that Goodell and the NFL have simply chosen to bury the issue and protect Snyder.
On June 22, Goodell testified at a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing. He told the Committee that he did not recall the NFL being informed of the 2009 incident that was reported in the Washington Post. But he did label the Commanders’ workplace culture as improper.
“It is clear to me that the workplace in Washington was unprofessional and unacceptable in numerous respects: bullying, widespread disrespect toward colleagues, use of demeaning language, public embarrassment and harassment,” he said.
Goodell was asked by committee member Rashida Talib (D-Mich) if he will “commit to doing more” and “recommend that Dan Snyder be removed as the team’s owner.”
Goodell responded: “I don’t have the authority to remove him.”
Under the NFL’s Bylaws and Constitution, the commissioner can determine discipline and establish policy. But he cannot, himself, force an owner to sell a team. For any issue in which the commissioner believes there should be greater discipline, he can refer it to the league’s executive committee and the other owners can vote on it. Approval of such a measure would require a three-quarters vote, or at least 24 of the 32 team owners.
Snyder was asked to appear at the hearing but he refused, citing previous business commitments. Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y) then announced that she intended to issue a subpoena for Snyder to testify next week regarding the allegations of workplace misconduct and sexual harassment.
“Mr. Snyder’s refusal to testify sends a clear signal that he is more concerned about protecting himself than coming clean to the American public,” Maloney said. “If the NFL is unwilling to hold Mr. Snyder accountable, then I am prepared to do so.”
In a 2020 article for ESPN, Ian O’Connor wrote, “Per NFL policy, owners are supposed to be held to a higher standard than players. While this may be policy, Goodell’s discipline of Daniel Snyder and of other owners suggests otherwise.”
It's worth noting that Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was suspended six games in 2014 for driving while intoxicated. In 2018, outgoing Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson was fined $2.75 million for gross workplace misconduct. And in 2019, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft apologized for his arrest in a Florida prostitution sting but has avoided any sanctions. It’s very unlikely that a player would walk away scot-free in any similar situation.
So why the apparent double standard for how Goodell disciplines players and owners? O’Connor has a rather simple answer: “It's easier to discipline your employees than your employers.”
Goodell has been commissioner since 2006. By any financial metric, his tenure has been a remarkable success. The league’s total revenue has grown from $6.5 billion in 2006 to $18 billion in 2020. The average value of a team rose from $898 million to over $3.5 billion during the same time period. No doubt the owners of the 32 NFL franchises are thrilled by the return on their investment.
And Goodell has made a fortune as well during his tenure. Forbes estimates that he has raked in $128 million during the last two fiscal years.
So what is he likely to do with Watson and Snyder?
As the old saying goes, the answer to all your questions is money.
Alan Resnick is an industrial psychologist with over 40 years of professional experience. He and his wife are sheltering at home in Farmington Hills, Michigan. He is passing the time by cooking, exercising, catching up on friends’ recommendations of must-see TV and writing.