Why the NFL should lighten up

In writing about the NFL’s handling of the Ray Rice matter, my position has been that the commissioner should not be meting out discipline to players for personal misconduct. Non-football related misbehavior should be an issue for the player’s employer (his team) and, in appropriate cases, law enforcement.

It also seems to me that if the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell hadn’t taken to issuing discipline for personal conduct, he would have avoided much of the criticism he now faces for initially not coming down hard enough on Rice. Goodell’s assumption of the power to judge carried with it the responsibility to judge wisely.

Judging wisely isn’t as easy as it sounds, and judging in a way that will seem wise across the range of modern interest groups is impossible.

I’m pleased that Sally Jenkins, an outstanding writer and an independent thinker in the knee-jerk-liberal world of sports-writing, views these matters the same way. She writes:

The scandals now engulfing the league can be traced to a single source: the superciliousness of a commissioner who thought the deepest societal ills — domestic abuse, sexual violence, drug use — could be handled with a morals clause.

I wish I had put it that way.

Jenkins continues:

It’s possible to be frustrated by Goodell’s handling of the slug-fisted Ray Rice, and the whip-handed Adrian Peterson, yet have an uneasy sense that the last thing the NFL needs is a more discipline-minded commissioner.

I would have said that the more frustrated we are by Goodell’s decisions, the less we should want a more discipline-minded commissioner.

Goodell has assumed the rule of uber-disciplinary on the theory that the NFL needs to protect its “brand” from miscreant players and opportunistic teams that employ them. I maintain that this argument misunderstands the NFL’s appeal. Jenkins seems to agree:

Andrew Brandt, who spent a decade in the front office of the Green Bay Packers, remembers an occasion when the team considered signing a player with a rap sheet as long as a street block. Brandt said, “I just don’t feel good about bringing this guy in.” To which another team official replied: “What do you think we’re asking these guys to do? We want this guy to get into 75 street fights every game, and win ’em. We’re not asking him to lead a boys choir.”

The conversation, Brandt says, “always struck me.” The underlying assumption was that a certain amount of uncurbed, foaming brutality was not just tolerable, but desirable and worth the exchange. You can’t expect a T-Rex to have table manners.

The NFL network uses “T-Rex’s” like Warren Sapp and Michael Irvin as on-air personalities.

There’s plenty more wisdom on Jenkins’ column, but I’ll wrap it up with this:

[The Rice incident and others like it] have utterly exposed Goodell’s paternal “higher standard” talk, his “protect the shield and the integrity of the game” nonsense as the archaic fantasy-peddling it is. America quit asking actors, musicians and politicians to live up to morals clauses a long time ago, for the simple reason that reality overtook naive hero-worshipping. The audience came to a more human, if disappointed, understanding. . . .

Goodell’s policy is a failure because it stigmatizes players while failing to address the fundamental, profound reality that there are some ills that get the best of people.

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