Brett Favre's Fine Is Part of Roger Goodell's Master Plan

The key portion of the National Football League’s statement announcing its $50,000 fine against Brett Favre was as follows: “Favre was not candid in several respects during the investigation, resulting in a longer review and additional negative public attention for Favre, Sterger, and the NFL.” (Italics added)

Ultimately, the NFL’s disciplinary system under Roger Goodell is an instrument of public relations, not a mechanism for righting wrongs or promoting a particular sense of right-and-wrong.

Jenn Sterger and her representatives failed to understand this. Favre’s attempts to solicit Sterger — which reportedly included sending her pictures of his genitalia — was the flashpoint of the investigation that led to Goodell’s fine. Goodell believed he had insufficient evidence to prove Favre violated the league’s personal conduct rules; the fine amounted to an “obstruction of justice” charge that he failed to fully cooperate with Goodell’s investigation. Sterger’s attorney, Joseph R. Conway, blasted Goodell for not believing his client’s story and imposing harsher discipline — presumably a suspension — against Favre: “[T]oday’s decision is an affront to all females and shows once again that, despite tough talk, the NFL remains the good old boys’ league.”

Conway said Favre received preferential treatment because he is a star player. If so, that would be a departure for Goodell. Earlier in 2010, Goodell famously suspended two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for six games (later reduced to four) after he was accused of sexual assault. Notably, prosecutors declined to press criminal charges against Roethlisberger. Nevertheless, Goodell insisted he had the right to act on mere allegations of impropriety: “[Y]ou are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct … that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans.”

So if the “good old boys’ league” didn’t protect Roethlisberger — a more relevant player to the current NFL landscape — why did it protect Favre? It comes down to the “negative public attention” referenced in the NFL’s statement on Favre. The Roethlisberger case centered on off-field conduct that occurred outside the workplace. In contrast, Sterger was a New York Jets contractor who accused Favre, then a Jets player, of in-workplace sexual harassment that involved other Jets employees. All things being equal, the Favre case should have been taken more seriously by Goodell.

But all things are not equal — most notably, the quantity and quality of press coverage both cases received. The Favre story was broken not by Sterger coming forward with her allegations in a timely manner, but by a secondhand account published by the sports website Deadspin last August. By this point nearly two years had elapsed since both Favre and Sterger worked in New York. Goodell’s subsequent investigation lasted almost the entire balance of the 2010 NFL season.

The Roethlisberger story had a much shorter gestation. The alleged sexual assault took place around March 5, 2010. The police investigation began within hours, a month later the district attorney announced he would not press charges, and nine days after that, Goodell suspended Roethlisberger. A few weeks later, Sports Illustrated published a cover story purporting to show how Roethlisberger’s pattern of “bad behaviour” and “bad judgment” demonstrated he was a case of “entitlement running amok.”

The timing was curious. As the aforementioned Deadspin noted, most of the SI report consisted of allegations and incidents that predated the sexual assault investigation: “Wouldn’t this SI story have been just as interesting, and a much better scoop, if it had run, say, a year ago?”

Goodell was likely aware of the looming SI story when he made his decision to suspend Roethlisberger just a couple weeks earlier. From Goodell’s standpoint, there’s a big difference between an SI cover story and a frontpage report on Deadspin. SI is a de facto partner of the league; its reporters depend on constant access to top league officials in order to produce a “newsworthy” product. Deadspin, by comparison, is a nuisance. At best the league views it as a gossip site; at worst, it represents a disruption of the symbiotic relationship between the NFL and the press that covers it.

If the media poles had been reversed, so too would the disciplinary outcomes. If SI had run the initial story on Favre’s actions towards Sterger — peppered by a lengthy recital of other Favre misdeeds and personal failings, of which there are no doubt many — and there was an accompanying blast of white-hot press revulsion, Goodell would have ignored Favre’s celebrity and stature and suspended him just as he did Roethlisberger. Likewise, if the sexual assault allegations against Roethlisberger had been confined to Deadspin or some similar website, Goodell would have gone out of his way to minimize the sanctions against the player — and maximise the credibility of a non-NFL partner media outlet.It’s not just a matter of tying disciplinary decisions to media coverage.

Goodell’s enforcement of the “personal conduct policy” also bares direct relation to his primary goal as CEO of the league, namely securing a new collective bargaining agreement that is less favourable to players and more favourable to the franchise operators who pay Goodell’s salary. Goodell became commissioner shortly after the negotiations for the last collective bargaining agreement were completed. The franchise operators later opted out of this agreement, leading to the present standoff between the league and its players.

The term of the present CBA coincides with Goodell’s decision to ramp-up enforcement of the personal conduct policy. This was not a coincidence. While the league’s media partners have largely spun Goodell’s behaviour as an attempt to impose his personal standards of right-and-wrong over the players — an authoritarian goal most media members applaud — in reality it’s all about obtaining the higher ground in the labour war. Like most labour battles, this is more about public perception and support than economic truths. The franchise operators need to divert public attention from the cause of the present standoff — the operators’ own poor business practices and decisions — and onto the players.

Goodell’s disciplinary decisions are the centrepiece of a “blame the players” strategy that permeate the labour talks. The Roethlisberger case is Exhibit A. In issuing a six-game suspension, Goodell guaranteed the Roethlisberger story — the out-of-control star quarterback — would continue to play out over the first couple months of the regular season. It kept the story going. Normally a CEO would want to douse the flames of a story that negatively impacts a key employee. Goodell and the NFL operate on the reverse principle: The worse the employees look, the better management looks.

Even in the Favre case, Goodell unnecessarily dragged out the proceedings, only to blame Favre for this delay. If Goodell really cared about protecting a star player, he could have come out a day after the Deadspin report and said, “I’m not going to discipline a player based on two-year-old secondhand allegations published on a gossip website.” There might have been some grumbling from the press corps, but the story would have run its course within a week.

On the other hand, there was little tactical advantage to throwing the book at Favre. The mainstream press wasn’t calling for Favre’s head. His playing career will almost certainly end after tomorrow. A suspension would not generate much additional negative-publicity value for Goodell’s purposes.

Unfortunately for Sterger, there’s little room for anything resembling “justice” in Goodell’s agenda. But that shouldn’t surprise Sterger or anyone else. Quite frankly, Goodell’s job is not to right all past wrongs. Goodell’s media partners may sell the idea that he is a moral crusader who wants to improve the lives of his players, but don’t buy it. He’s out to “win” a labour war (partly of his own making) and if he can use the facade of “discipline” to achieve that goal, he’ll do so.

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