Jordan on sports

tsj column writers - sports viewU.S. District Court Judge Barbara S. Jones’ decision to overturn Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell came as no surprise to most observers.  The former Baltimore Ravens’ running back won his appeal against the NFL for all the right reasons.  Here are five takeaways from Judge Jones’ ruling.

  1.  Ray Rice wasn’t found “innocent” of committing domestic violence.  The arbitration hearing was neither a civil trial to establish liability nor a criminal trial designed to determine guilt or innocence.  The sole issue was whether Goodell abused the powers granted to him under the Collective Bargaining Agreement by punishing Rice twice for the same offense, first when he imposed a two-game suspension in July followed by an indefinite suspension in September.  Judge Jones confirmed what Rice and everyone in his camp – his wife Janay, his attorney, the NFLPA and Baltimore Ravens’ General Manager Ozzie Newsome, all of whom were present during the initial hearing with Goodell in June – has been saying all along:  Rice admitted to striking his then fiancé Janay in an Atlantic City elevator prior to the release of the incriminating video.
  2.  Ray Rice is a long way from playing football.  Although the arbitration ruling overturned Rice’s indefinite suspension and reinstated him, for now he remains a man without a team.  The Ravens released him after the elevator video surfaced making him a free agent.  But will any team sign him?  What a signing team would get, in addition to a former very good player whose recent performance suggests that his skills may be eroding, is a public relations nightmare.  The Rice case shined a spotlight on the issue of domestic violence in this country and specifically in the NFL.  The league’s previous lax treatment of players who have engaged in such conduct has been well documented by the media.  That intense media focus forced the league to hire an entire staff to deal with the fallout.  Fans and sponsors of a team signing Rice are likely to protest with their pocketbooks, which is the only form of protest the NFL is likely to recognize.
  3.  Roger Goodell suffered a major blow to his authority and his credibility.  Voices inside and outside the NFL have long questioned the fairness of one person – in this case the commissioner – serving as judge, jury, appellate judge and executioner in all matters related to personal conduct issues in the league.  A number of NFL owners have suggested that Goodell should recuse himself from player disciplinary matters, at least to the extent of hearing appeals on decisions he has previously made.

In the court system, appellate judges are not the ones who make the original decision.  An NFL-style system would violate every tenant of the justice system and would not be tolerated in our society.  But the NFL is a private business that is permitted to make its own rules, subject to negotiations with the NFLPA.  Judge Jones’ ruling signals the beginning of the end of Goodell’s all-encompassing powers in personal conduct matters.

The second item – credibility – is arguably more important than the first.  In describing Goodell’s actions, Judge Jones used the words “abusive, untruthful, unfair and inconsistent.”  While she didn’t use the word “lying,” she might as well have.  A leader without credibility is impotent and cannot effectively lead.  And credibility once lost is not easily, if ever, regained.

  1.  Roger Goodell isn’t going anywhere.  Despite the hit to his reputation, Goodell’s job is safe, at least for the time being.  It’s all about the dollars and cents and in that regard, the commissioner has been very good for the league and its owners.  He has been worth every penny of his $44 million annual salary and unless a groundswell of opposition to Goodell emanates from outside the league, he will remain as NFL commissioner.
  2.  The NFL and NFLPA are further apart than they’ve ever been.  The union has historically been the weakest of any among the big four team sports but union officials and players have been emboldened by the Rice decision.  The union can opt out of the current CBA next year and unless the league is willing to make significant changes to the personnel policy, expect a standoff that could lead to a work stoppage which would not benefit either side.

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner.  He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com  Jordan can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.

 

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