Why you should care
Because fixing this mess requires someone with independence and gravitas.
New England is in the Super Bowl again, but what if Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had served his original three-game suspension for his illegal hit on Buffalo Bills defensive back Tre’Davious White? The big game might have had a very different matchup.
Gronkowski served only one game — the same punishment that Pittsburgh Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster received that same week for his helmet hit on Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Every season, NFL fans question how punishments are issued by the league and why they often lack consistency. And much of that criticism is aimed at Commissioner Roger Goodell, the man who enforces the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
If you’re a poster child of the NFL, they can’t afford to keep you off the field.
Keenan Burton, former L.A. Rams wide receiver
This is more than sports talk radio fodder. The NFL is exposing itself to legal liability with its inconsistent policies, as the Gronkowski hit can be seen as a form of workplace violence, as defined by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
Given all the hits Goodell has taken for inconsistency, why not bring in someone who has experience delving into questionable decision-making within a powerful American institution? I nominate Robert Mueller as a new NFL enforcement czar. The league and the NFL Players Association should hand the former FBI director complete control to hand out punishment — once he’s done with this whole Russia investigation, of course — without having to answer to Goodell or the union. Democrats and Republicans have given bipartisan backing to the special counsel’s probe so far, so there’s no reason to think he can’t bridge the NFL’s divide on dispensing justice and deliver rulings that would hold up in court.
Under the current system, the NFL and the NFLPA select arbitrators, but they are only used at Goodell’s discretion under the league’s collective bargaining agreement. And the league has faced lengthy court battles over its enforcement of off-field conduct (domestic violence allegations against Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott) and on-field cheating (Tom Brady’s allegedly deflated footballs). Regulating on-field violence cuts to the heart of football itself, and is even trickier.
Appearances matter, says former ESPN legal analyst and law professor Roger Cossack, who argues that the current system “should be improved to give off a sense of fairness and equitability.” Recently, there have been high-profile inconsistency issues with punishments. For example, Burfict was given a three-game suspension on an illegal hit on Steelers receiver Antonio Brown during a 2015 playoff game. One might assume that Gronkowski would serve the same amount of time, but …
“I feel like Roger Goodell shouldn’t be making the decision about these things,” says former Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Keenan Burton. Fans, apparently, haven’t been too keen on Goodell’s performance. A Harris Poll in November found that 56 percent of hardcore NFL fans disapprove of the job Goodell is doing. He is routinely accused of bias and favoritism. In Burton’s view, it seems as though punishment decisions depend upon a player’s standing in the league. “If you’re a poster child of the NFL, they can’t afford to keep you off the field,” he says.
Past efforts at justice reform have failed, Cossack says, “because the league is very happy with the way it is now. It’s in their interest to control the discipline process.” An enforcement czar would have to be approved in the next collective bargaining agreement in 2021, but those negotiations tend to revolve around health care and pensions. Those issues concern all union members, and not just the active players who are affected by the current NFL personal conduct policy. Thus, the policy may not get the much-needed attention and reform it deserves.
Gronkowski himself is recovering from a concussion suffered in yet another dirty hit. With the world watching the big game on Sunday in Minneapolis, Gronk’s presence only underscores the need for the league to solve its inconsistent policing of a violent workplace.