It is necessary for commissioner power to maintain the integrity of their respective sport by strictly policing on-field infractions rather than monitoring the off field activities of players and employees. Overzealous punishments meted out by a commissioner intent on maintaining a pristine public image must be avoided at all costs. Commissioner discipline is an inexact science and all too often, commissioners are unable to establish just cause in the penalties distributed to disruptive athletes. It is in the best interest of professional sports to allow the best players to perform without the interference of any governing body. The public response to the morally questionable activities of players combined with their on-field production will sufficiently determine each player’s value and career prospects.
Currently, commissioner power to mete out discipline in the cases of off-field infraction is nearly absolute. Commissioners commonly discipline morally questionable acts of athletes that arguably put the character of said player and the reputation of the league in jeopardy. This power is drawn from the existence of player contracts and the collective bargaining agreements providing commissioners with the charge to discipline players for activities not in the “best interest” of the sport. The National Football League Personal Conduct Policy explicitly defines the rights of the commissioner to punish disruptive players. It unfortunately places an incredible burden on players to be held to a higher standard of ethical activity. “Illegal or irresponsible conduct does more than simply tarnish the offender. It puts innocent people at risk, sullies the reputation of others involved in the game, and undermines public respect and support for the NFL.” Yes, we all know professional athletes are role models to many, but this is not grounds to subject them to capricious, non-standardized punishment.
Commissioners are in complete control of the livelihood of hordes of athletes. The fact that a commissioner can come down with a penalty supplemental to that of law enforcement authorities is extremely alarming. The aftermath of Michael Vick’s dog fighting prosecution and subsequent suspension from the NFL serve great testimony to the dangers of capricious commissioner justice. After Vick’s release from prison, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell offered Vick the opportunity to begin playing after week six or earlier based on his behavior. This extended penalty begs the question, “Was Vick’s prison term not enough?” A player’s ability to compete and make a living is directly related. In this case, Vick’s earning power for the season may be highly incentivized; Goodell effectively put his present lifestyle and those of Vick’s dependants in jeopardy. More alarming are the repercussion that may await Vick much later than the end of his prison term. Without appropriate time to perform a professional athlete’s future earning power and attractiveness decrease substantially. Luckily Vick eventually regained the opportunity to play by week three of the 2009-2010 season.
The Standard of Conduct of the NFL goes as far as giving commissioners the right to penalize players for actions that are not even deemed unlawful. “It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime. Instead, as an employee of the NFL or a member club, you are held to a higher standard and expected to conduct yourself in a way that is responsible, promotes the values upon which the League is based, and is lawful”. Commissioner Roger Goodell’s most recent six game suspension of Ben Roethlisberger’s alleged sexual assault exemplifies the power wielded by a commissioner effectively damaging the career prospects of a previously successful professional athlete. Beyond the singular player’s livelihood, it is important to consider the unwarranted damage done to a team losing the contributions of any player on the roster. Commissioners are prone to error. It is very dangerous and detrimental for any governing body or individual to be given the opportunity to punish without firm grounds. It is not enough to wave the flag of reputation and public sentiment, when uncertain whether said individual is even guilty of the alleged offenses. What happens when an arbitrator overzealously punishes a player on the grounds of false accusations, or for actions without any public disdain? It is clear too much power has been put in the hands of league officials who can use the catch-all of “integrity” to serve their purposes under the normally auspicious umbrella of “best interests” of their respective league. One can only imagine the expressed troubles and outrage of players, coaches, and management that will surface when glaring mistakes in punishment affect the on field performances of ball clubs.
If NFL officials are sincerely worried about maintaining a high level of integrity amongst players and employees, perhaps another approach would be more effective. It seems feasible to push for franchise policing of athletes, rather than periodic shots of severe discipline from an aloof commissioner. More direct punishment from commissioners on teams in the form of lost draft picks, fines, and other creative repercussions may be worth consideration. If commissioners continue to penalize individual athletes, teams, fans, and players often suffer consequences associated with the missing production of penalized athletes. Ben Roethlisberger has been suspended for 6 games of the 2010 NFL Season without an actual off-field conviction related to sexual assault allegations. The Pittsburgh Steelers will now suffer unplanned for penalties, robbing them of the services of one of their premier athletes. An organization conscious of certain penalties can more effectively promote morally sound decisions of its contracted players. Teams may be better suited to punish players while retaining the right to use them throughout the year. Commissioners and associated official personnel can stay abreast of distributed internal punishments with an established system of required notification. It is generally understood and encouraged for management to take an active role in rehabilitating employees through increased penalties for recurring misconduct. However, “under the contractual “just cause” standard, employers must use discipline to guide an employee toward improved performance”. It is understood that Roethlisberger has a lengthy record of off-field misjudgment, but little is connected to the playing field. This latest sanction from Commissioner Goodell will immediately hurt his ability to perform by removing him from regular NFL competition. Additionally, in the case of a trade to another organization, Roethlisberger may be placed in a situation less conducive to his physical welfare as well as career prospects. It seems inappropriate for the NFL commissioner to wield power sufficient to remove players from their contracted workplace without work related infractions. If players find themselves more accountable to management for their off-field exploits, they are likely to play with a noticeable vigor worthy of front office favor and pardon. The character of individual athletes is well accounted for by management of all NFL teams. Teams have effectively negotiated around expected indiscretions on the part of derelicts (see Pac Man Jones) and class acts. It is understood that players will be rewarded for remaining marketable and productive by ownership. It is this reality that favors hands off policy on the part of commissioners for off-field misconduct. Law enforcement should be given the opportunity to handle street indiscretions that have little effect on game day performance. A few rogue athletes should not set the standard of NFL discipline. A draconian NFL commissioner is a dangerous one, with the potential of compromising on field quality of play with an obsession of driving a hard line on discipline.
To the credit of commissioners of major sports leagues, there is little precedent for their systems of retribution and deterrence. Commissioners are often faced with issues that are not on the books and are extremely challenging to settle in a timely fashion. Without a legitimate standard of reaction for off-field misconduct, commissioners legitimately create traditions of discipline as they go. Let us not forget the “Malice at the Palace” where Ron Artest and others assaulted multiple fans and most recently gun happy Gilbert Arenas. These are cases where interests of fans, sponsors, and the general media collide with the interests of players and management. I can only imagine the conflicting interests of governing personnel who must swiftly levy judgment deterring athletes from similar imprudent activity as well as providing fans with the talent, personalities, and competitive product they love.