Goodell Enforces Non-Existent Rule With Non-Existent Penalty

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

The more I hear from Roger Goodell, the more he comes off like a government regulator. That makes sense given that he holds the title of “commissioner,” which doesn’t exist in any non-governmental industry except for professional sports. This morning’s decision regarding former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor only reinforces Goodell’s regulatory tendencies.

According to Goodell spokesman Greg Aiello, Pryor is eligible for the NFL’s supplemental draft, which will take place shortly, and he’ll be able to sign with any team that selects him and participate in preseason activities, but he won’t be eligible to play for the first five weeks of the regular season. Aiello said, “Pryor will be able to be at his team’s facility and attend meetings during his 5-week hiatus but not able to practice on the field.” So although Aiello never expressly uses the word, Pryor will be suspended for five weeks.

The five-week “hiatus” matches the five-game suspension Pryor would have served had he returned to Ohio State this fall. The NCAA issued that suspension last December after learning Pryor sold his personal property in violation of the organisation’s “amateurism” rules. Pryor declined to enter the regular NFL Draft last April, but later decided to forego his remaining college eligibility and apply for entry into the supplemental draft.

The NFL Constitution says a supplemental draft is held whenever “a player or players become eligible for the League subsequent” to the regular draft. According to the Constitution, a player is draft-eligible if “all college football eligibility of such player has expired,” among other reasons. The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association further provides, “No player may elect to bypass a [regular] Draft for which he is eligible to apply for a selection in a supplemental Draft.” In previous years, players who entered the supplemental draft lost their college eligibility after the deadline to enter the regular draft. In 2010, for example, Harvey Unga and Josh Brent entered the supplemental draft after Unga left Brigham Young for violating the school’s honour code and Brent failed to meet the NCAA’s minimum academic requirements.

Like those cases, Pryor lost his college eligibility after the regular draft. The issue for Goodell is that he believes Pryor “made decisions that undermine the integrity of the eligibility rules for the NFL draft,” including failure to cooperate with NCAA investigators and hiring an agent in violation of NCAA rules.

Pryor has not broken any NFL rules. His college actions fall entirely within NCAA jurisdiction. Goodell’s only authority to act as he did here is a vague provision in Article 8 of the NFL Constitution that allows the Commissioner to suspend any “owner, shareholder, partner or holder of an interest in a member club, or any player, coach, officer, director, or employee thereof” if he is “guilty of conduct detrimental to the welfare of the League or professional football.” Notice the rule says “professional” football, not college.

In effect, Goodell is requiring Pryor to serve the NCAA’s five-game suspension as a condition of allowing him into the NFL. I can find nothing in the league’s rules that permit such a condition. The Constitution describes draft eligibility as a binary state: Either you’re eligible or you’re not. There is no “eligible after the fifth week” status under league rules. Goodell is unilaterally creating a new employment classification that is not provided for in either the league’s governing documents or its federally protected labour agreement.

It also strains credibility to suggest Pryor’s actions in college are somehow “detrimental to the welfare” of the NFL. Hundreds of college players have lost their eligibility for violating school or NCAA rules and entered the NFL without incident. There’s nothing special about Pryor’s case except that it got a lot of media attention and forced the resignation of Ohio State coach Jim Tressel (who is apparently now consulting with the Cleveland Browns). And even if Pryor, as Goodell believes, manipulated his ineligibility just to get into this year’s supplemental draft, there was a simple option available to the commissioner under the existing rules — declare Pryor ineligible for the supplemental draft. Yet rather than follow the existing rules, Goodell decided to invent a new one that increased his personal authority.

This is a pattern. Goodell routinely extends the shelf life of scandals involving players by issuing vague, open-ended suspensions. He previously did so with Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Vick, among others. You would think a commissioner concerned with integrity and protecting public perception wouldn’t routinely go out of his way to issue suspensions that keep stories of player misconduct in the news cycle. Goodell could have quietly declared Pryor ineligible and been done with it. Instead he took an unprecedented action that only raises further criticism from many corners (including this one) about his fairness and impartiality. That is far more “detrimental” to the league than anything Pryor ever did.

Goodell may well have another agenda here — such as covering for the NCAA — or he may simply be an incompetent leader. But we shouldn’t justify Goodell’s actions as some sort of blow for integrity. He enforced a non-existent rule using a non-existent penalty. It’s not the worst abuse of power ever committed, even by Goodell, but it should lead the NFL’s customers to question whether the game they support is in the hands of the right individual.