For NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the wins just keep on coming.
Arbitrator Shyam Das, who was unceremoniously canned by MLB last month after ruling against the league in the Ryan Braun drug testing fiasco, recently ruled that Goodell had the authority to suspend four players in the New Orleans Saints Bountygate scandal. Goodell suspended the players for their roles in the pay-for-injury hits on opposing players.
The players have appealed their suspensions and Das ruled that Goodell was the proper party to hear those appeals. The union contended that either Ted Cottrell or Art Shell, two league employees who normally handle appeals for discipline imposed on players for on-field transgressions, should handle the appeals. The suspended players believe they would receive a more objective hearing from either Cottrell or Shell, not surprising considering that Goodell is unlikely to overturn his own ruling.
In addition, the NFLPA had argued that the alleged offenses committed by the players occurred prior to the effective date of the league's new collective bargaining agreement and the CBA language protected the players from discipline for any offenses committed prior to last year's lockout. That argument was also rejected by Das.
The arbitrator's decision not only creates a credibility issue for the union with its membership, but the NFLPA leadership comes off looking like a bunch of incompetents. In comparison to the NFL, the MLB commissioner has been prohibited from hearing appeals of his own decisions since 1970. More than 40 years later, the NFLPA acquiesces to a practice that mirrors the ancient feudal system in Medieval Europe, with the commissioner reprising the role of the king and the players treated as serfs.
Das' decision followed a ruling by another arbitrator, Stephen Burbank, who also supported Goodell in a Bountygate related matter. Burbank ruled that Goodell's suspension of the four players was for "conduct detrimental to the game," while the union argued the matter was a salary-cap issue because it was a pay-for-performance program instituted by the Saints players. If the union's argument had prevailed, Goodell would not have been the appropriate party to discipline the players. That duty would have fallen to Burbank as the "System Arbitrator." Burbank's decision allows the players' appeal of their suspensions, scheduled for June 18, to be heard by Goodell.
Under the powers granted to the commissioner in the CBA, Goodell is not only the judge, jury and executioner, but the appellate judge as well on all matters related to player conduct in the NFL. There isn't a judge in the country that wouldn't be envious of those expansive powers.
The union and players have appealed Burbank's ruling, but their chances of success are minimal. The best opportunity to change the culture in the NFL, where the owners have lorded over the players throughout league history, is in collective bargaining. Alas, the players have had a succession of lightweights representing them at the negotiating table. DeMaurice Smith, the current executive director of the NFLPA, was first elected to office in 2009 amid high hopes for a change in the status quo. Despite considerable dissatisfaction among players with the CBA Smith negotiated in 2011, he was re-elected for a second term in March of this year.
Smith is nonetheless an improvement over his predecessor, Gene Upshaw, who served as head of the NFLPA for 25 years. A former player, Upshaw had a far too cozy relationship with Goodell's predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, which resulted in CBA's which were much more beneficial to the owners than they were the players.
Labor negotiations of any sort are not for the faint of heart. Preparation, persistence, perseverance and compromise are the hallmarks of successful leaders on both sides of the table. Former MLBPA executive directors Marvin Miller and Don Fehr utilized such traits to benefit baseball players for decades. Unfortunately for NFL players, neither is available to assist them. Miller recently turned 95 and has been retired for 30 years. After resigning as executive director of the MLBPA in 2009, Fehr accepted the challenge of representing hockey players and is in the process of negotiating a new CBA with NHL owners.
Until a reasonable facsimile of either Miller or Fehr rides to the rescue of the players, the law in the NFL will continue to be with the commissioner, Roger Goodell.