There is a fine line between lame and smart. Give NFL commissioner Roger Goodell credit for finding a smart solution to the whole Brett Favre(notes)-Jenn Sterger affair, even if some people will inevitably criticize Goodell for leniency.
In fining Favre $50,000 for failure to cooperate in the league's investigation of the sexting allegations, Goodell came up decidedly short of the warden from "Cool Hand Luke." At the same time, Goodell saved his precious personal conduct policy from a strong challenge while simultaneously keeping the league from getting into an ugly entanglement over sexual harassment charges.
In other words, Goodell didn't exactly kick Favre in the rear as the Minnesota Vikings quarterback expectedly closes his career and he didn't satisfy the Sterger contingent. Instead, Goodell avoided checkmate in a case where he was playing with his king and a bunch of pawns while being attacked by a queen and an angry bishop.
"I can't begin to tell you the number of issues we had to figure out in this one," an NFL source said Wednesday, after saying he expected criticism from women's groups and other activists. "It's not just the investigation, it's every angle you could possibly imagine."
Fact is, the league almost would have been better off if Sterger had filed a sexual harassment claim or a lawsuit (the deadline apparently was Tuesday). It would have largely taken the league out of the process and turned it over to people who had less invested in the outcome. In this case, the league was in a difficult spot of trying to investigate a future Hall of Fame player who had no public record of prior misconduct. Under the personal conduct policy, Favre didn't qualify as a repeat offender like Pacman Jones or a player with a damaged reputation like Ben Roethlisberger(notes).
Nonetheless, what Favre was accused of doing was so filled with hubris that even Donald Trump might blush. Start with sending text messages, move along to voicemails and then add explicit photos of private parts. However, proving the photos were actually Favre is basically impossible, short of him dropping his Wranglers. Just think about getting that past any half-witted employment lawyer.
At the same time, Goodell had to answer questions about just what the heck is going on behind the closed doors of most NFL training facilities and stadium. At least one Jets employee has been named as an accomplice with these shenanigans, making you wonder if others above him were also aware. Ultimately, this whole situation threatened to unveil all sorts of sordid details about the workplace environment if Goodell hadn't found a clever way out.
Still, though Goodell chose to wait for possible legal action, he couldn't afford to go too far with Favre or else face the threat of Favre (and perhaps the NFL Players Association) challenging the league's conduct policy. Remember, Favre has never been directly charged by Sterger with anything, not even a human resources complaint. By contrast, Roethlisberger has been sued in one state and was investigated in another, two public cases that embarrassed the league.
The only accusations Favre has faced came from media reports that started at Deadspin.com. Fair enough, but what happens when other media outlets start reporting other athletes for inappropriate conduct that isn't challenged in some legal fashion?
(Al Pereira/Getty Images)
If Goodell had punished Favre for this, he would have brought the bar even lower for what behavior should be punished. In the short time that the personal conduct policy has been in place, the bar has gone from repeated misconduct that included beaten strippers and shot-up bouncers to a media report about Favre supposedly sexting.
In other words, Goodell's pet policy has been pushed and pulled to amoeba-like proportions.
In response, Goodell and the league came up with a cleverly worded punishment. The release on this incident reads longer and more carefully than anything the league has done with Jones, Roethlisberger, Michael Vick(notes) or Plaxico Burress(notes). The statement weaves around the bottom line so effectively that you'd think Favre was being punished for something far more than not being straight with the boss.
For the league, that's important. It doesn't want to be in court and it really doesn't want to besmirch Favre's reputation any more than what's already been done. Fact is, Favre is part of the business and it's Goodell's job to protect that business and all that goes with it.
And while some will claim this was lame, it's really quite smart. Sadly, sometimes those qualities bleed into one another.