The most troubling aspect of Roger Goodell’s NFL tenure is his desire to make up the rules as he goes along. First Emperor Goodell instituted the league’s personal conduct policy which made him de facto judge, jury, and executioner of perceived NFL wrongs. What was most troubling about Goodell’s power grab in the NFL personal conduct policy was the lack of existing precedent to justify his actions. Goodell’s rulings, therefore, seemed arbitray, capricious, and without connection to the actual wrongdoing. Worse, those penalties came before the justice system had time to act. The NFL is still sitting atop an explosive disaster; eventually the Duke Lacrosse case of the NFL will arise and Goodell will punish players who have done nothing wrong.
But that will come in the future.
Now Goodell has gone and acted improperly anew. This time he’s acted so improperly that he’s managed to make Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor a sympathetic figure. Yeah, I didn’t think that was possible either. In ruling that Pryor will be eligible for the supplemental draft Goodell also carried forward Pryor’s five-game NCAA suspension. It’s the first time in NFL history that a college penalty has carried forward to the NFL, and it represents a terrible decision that will echo forward and set off conflicting precedents for years to come.
The penalty structure of college sports is clearly broken, but this NFL decision actually makes things worse.
How so? I’ll tell you in five easy steps.
1. The NFL is making up the rules as it goes along.
This is my primary issue with Roger Goodell’s NFL reign — he doesn’t bother to make rules before he enacts punishment.
We saw it with the personal conduct policy when Goodell simply assumed the emperor’s robes with no preexisting knowledge among NFL players that they could be suspended for entirely off-field matters. Now he’s done the same again, suspending Terrelle Pryor out of nowhere.
The NFL is a multi-billion dollar organization. It can’t take power from the players without a basis for taking that power.
2. Terrelle Pryor had no prior knowledge this penalty could exist.
This is my biggest issue with the penalty. How do you punish someone for an act that he had no idea was impermissible under league rules. If Goodell wanted to announce that henceforth all NCAA suspensions would be honored by the NFL, I’d still disagree with him and think that’s probably legally impermissible, but at least you could argue that players were aware of the potential for suspension.
Here we have none of this.
Indeed, the entire purpose of having a system of governance in place is so individuals can know what rules govern their actions.
Here there was no rule, no precedent, just a man who believes that he is doing justice. Pryor’s the victim, the guinea pig that allows one man, Goodell, to extend his powers well beyond the permissible scope.
3. What about prior violators of the rule?
Let’s be honest here, tons of NFL players have violated NCAA rules. Just using Reggie Bush as an easy example, is the NFL going to suspend him for not turning over his Heisman Trophy? Bush left as a junior and we now know he would have been ineligible as a senior.
What about Cam Newton? If news breaks that he got paid and was ineligible for the entirety of the 2010 season that would also make him ineligible for the entirety of the 2011 season too. Will the NFL suspend him? Probably not. What about the University of Miami’s current players, Jacory Harris and crew, who are alleged to have violated NCAA rules? Will they be suspended if they come out after this year without serving a suspension?
How will the NFL decide which players to suspend and which not to? There’s no guidlng principle, no precedent. And these suspensions may well be illegal under the law. Since when can the NCAA and the NFL collude to keep a player from being eligible?
4. The Coach vs. Player dichotomy is glaring.
Pete Carroll landed in Seatlle right before USC got slammed. The NFL didn’t do anything to him. (And please spare me the knowledge argument. Carroll is powerful, that’s the reason the NFL didn’t mess with him).
Would the NFL keep Jim Tressel from coaching in the league? Doubtful.
Nope, this is a clear example of the NFL, the powerful, attacking the powerless, Pryor.
5. The NFLPA has to grow a pair and fight this suspension.
You know why Roger Goodell has so much power? Because the NFLPA so rarely challenges any of his dictates. In fact, no player ever challenged Goodell’s authority to issue league suspensions under the personal conduct policy. Not a one! That’s despite the fact that Goodell never had any actual authority under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement.
The fact that he hasn’t been challenged shows Goodell’s smart about his power grabs. He punishes the weakest members of the player’s union, the guys that no one else wants to defend.
Now he’s done it
But guess what? That’s the entire purpose of the union, to defend the strong and the weak, to defend all of the players. We’ll see whether the NFLPA does the right thing, or lays down in front of Emperor Goodell once again. No matter who you root for, NFL or college, Roger Goodell’s hamhanded suspension of Pryor is an awful precedent.