Goodell Brandishes Unlimited Power in Peterson's Suspension

You have shown no meaningful remorse for your conduct. 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.
— NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's letter to Adrian Peterson [Source:]

In my last post, I advocated that Adrian Peterson would soon be back on the field on the condition that the NFL complied with the contracts ranging from the plea agreement to the CBA that are binding between the NFL and every player that is part of the labor organization. Lo and behold, yesterday morning, the NFL (i.e. Commissioner Roger Goodell) determined he is not bound by the mutually bargained contractual language and ruled he would be suspended without pay for at least the remainder of the season. Additionally, the arbitrator, Shyam Dass, upheld the NFL's determination last night.

The Equity Analysis vs. The Legal Analysis

People look at this decision and can have two very different but very valid assessments. One is that Peterson deserves whatever punishment he receives. Equity involves fairness and justness. This assessment's reasons may parallel Goodell's three "aggravating circumstances" for giving a strong punishment: (1) the physical and emotional injury to the child due to the disparity in age, size, and strength between Peterson and his four-year-old son; (2) the use of the switch is like "the functional equivalent" of a weapon in the hands of a professional athlete; and (3) Peterson's lack of remorse.

Here, the series of photos showing the abuse Peterson's four-year-old son received was the nail in the coffin for him. According to a league source, the photos were just as unsettling as the elevator footage used against Ray Rice for his personal conduct violation. The source also said that the specific factor distinguishing Peterson's conduct from what many would consider acceptable corporal punishment for a child was the injury to his son's testicles. Yes, Peterson's conduct may have crossed the line, but I think that emphasizing fairness in this respect here would do more harm than good because it defeats the purpose of having a contract and endangers the players overall. I know that the majority of players will not have issue with the new personal conduct rules, but the power imbalance could start here and grow into other areas covered by the collective bargaining process.

The legal assessment is the other way to analyze this decision, and because the NFL and Peterson are bound by a contract that governs the matter, I believe this is the more suitable assessment. Many people have heard that there is a new Personal Conduct Policy and that Peterson has stated that "the report that [he] backed out of a meeting with the NFL is just not true." There are three important facts for this analysis: (1) the commissioner has the express power to act in the best interests of the sport; (2) the "hearing" that Peterson was so kindly asked to attend is not consistent with the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA); and (3) Peterson was allegedly supposed to be removed from the commissioner's exempt list once his case was resolved as part of the plea agreement he made with the NFL because his time already served would satisfy the full extent of the sentence, and the case has resolved.

Peterson argues he would attend the standard meeting with the commissioner as before any discipline determination because that is the long-term practice and is what was collectively bargained in the CBA. All players, coaches, staff, and the commissioner are bound by the CBA, a legally enforceable contract between the NFL and the NFLPA, through the NFL Bylaws. Therefore, Goodell has not only the right to act in the league's best interests but the duty to do so, but rules, rulings, and processes likenon-collectively bargained pre-discipline hearings cannot be made "on the fly" and certainly do not serve the league's best interests, for the NFL will lose its credibility and respect from the parties involved and the public perception.

This view is objective and does not speak to the sentiments like the former view. While tapping into equity for a situation is sometimes appropriate to right a wrong, we have to be careful that we do not too frequently make two wrongs - here, a parent punishing the child with a controversial method (though it is his right to raise his child however he wants so long as it is in the child's best interests) and the commissioner's breach of contract that is meant to protect both the sport and an athlete's interests - equal a right.

The Implications

It is understandable that given the storm of negativity hovering over the league, the sport, and its commissioner's fitness to lead the league's central office, Goodell would want to make an example out of Peterson. Making a statement that the NFL will not tolerate personal conduct such as this is great, but how many times will Goodell "make an example" of a high-profile player? Once a season? Every opportunity it gets? So far under Goodell's reign, his discipline for personal conduct violations has shown egregious inconsistency and unfairness when there is a collectively bargained document dictating the process to be used. Here, although we don't know the exact language of the full plea agreement for confidentiality reasons, Goodell is allegedly going back on his word.

If people make contracts, decide to breach the contract for the heck of it without a justifiable reason, and that breach is then upheld in an administrative setting serving a judicial function, what purpose does the contract serve? Why should the NFLPA come to the bargaining table in the first place if there is no guarantee that the judiciary will not enforce the bilateral, collectively bargained, legally enforceable contract (i.e., an agreement with an offer, an acceptance, and "consideration")? Bottom line: The players likely cannot trust Goodell.

Luckily, the NFLPA and Peterson can appeal the arbitrator's decision to uphold the NFL's ruling, and it will. The NFL placed Peterson on the commissioner's exempt list on September 18 after his indictment on felony child abuse, and even though he pleaded no-contest to misdemeanor reckless assault, he will remain on the exempt list until his appeal can be heard. Furthermore, Goodell has the power to determine who will hear Peterson's appeal through the CBA just like he did regarding Ray Rice's appeal. Therefore, if Goodell wants consistency, he should determine that a neutral arbitrator will hear Peterson's case, but consistency appears to be a foreign concept to Goodell.