Three springs ago, back when Pacman Jones roamed the strip clubs and Tank Johnson(notes) carried enough small arms to supply a militia, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell decided his league had an image problem. This has been part of Goodell's genius: realizing when the public relations are going bad and reacting quickly to squelch the disaster.
So in response to the troubling behavior, he produced a two-page document the NFL called its "Personal Conduct Policy," a vague but nonetheless strong statement essentially explaining that any player, coach, team official or league executive caught doing something wrong could face dire consequences. It never spelled out what those consequences actually were. Everything was left to "the discretion of the Commissioner."
Instantly, Goodell ruled hard. Jones, arrested several times during his first two seasons with the Tennessee Titans, was suspended for the 2007 season. Johnson, who served 60 days in jail early in '07, was suspended for the first half. And another player, then-Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry, was also given an eight-game suspension. Goodell's policy was praised. The league had salvaged its image.
Problem is: players didn't stop misbehaving. Even more, the NFL's policy doesn't provide answers. While Goodell was wise to create the document and attack a looming image problem, it still stands today as a public relations ploy – two pages of words that mean different things depending on the profile of the offender.
Over the weekend, Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand was arrested for a DUI. As DUI arrests go this was especially untidy. In the video, released by police, Lewand's car appears to weave back and forth. He is supposedly so drunk that one of the arresting officers shouts "whew, you've been drinking man" as Lewand wobbles from the car. Yet even when faced with a mountain of evidence to his intoxication, he insists that he is sober. He tries to talk his way out of taking a breathalyzer. When he finally does breathe into one, he is arrested immediately.
In many ways this is as bad or worse than Jones' $100 bill blizzard that led to a strip club fracas in Las Vegas, or Johnson hiding his weapons cache. A player driving around with a .21 blood alcohol level, denying he had done anything wrong, looking ridiculous as the handcuffs were snapped on his wrists would be certain to face the wrath of Goodell's policy.
It's not too hard to imagine Goodell at his desk trying to calculate the reaction to his punishment, waiting for the perfect moment to drop his ruling; all to maximize airtime and further the notion that he is ridding the league of its hoodlums.
In a reverse of most sports leagues where big stars often get the benefit of the doubt, the NFL's punishment of quarterbacks Michael Vick(notes) and Ben Roethlisberger(notes) proves that the more publicized the behavior, the worse the penalty.
Lewand (left) with Lions head coach Jim Schwartz last week
(Carlos Osorio/AP Photo)
Will the same happen to Lewand? Should it be worse?
Ultimately, as the league's conduct policy heads into its fourth year it needs to advance. It can not continue to rely upon a quickly-written document dashed off in the heat of a bad PR week to define the future of its behavioral policy. A good policy can be an excellent deterrent. Nothing motivates a player like the loss of a paycheck. Yet the punishments must be handed out evenly, the consequences laid out long in advance before the TV cameras have even descended on the scene.
Maybe DUIs are automatic two-game suspensions for players and three months for executives. Whatever they are, let them be defined. Let everyone know what they face. Let them understand there is little room for appeal. For years this has worked when the crime is steroids. The time has come to simplify conduct as well.
Ten years ago this wouldn't have mattered. Ten years ago no one much cared if players got in trouble. Ten years ago a team executive's DUI might not have even made the news. But we are an image-conscious culture now. We bristle when our heroes don't behave. We care when a team's president is wobbling on the side of the road, his breath sending the breathalyzer's numbers soaring.
Ten years ago there wasn't a need for a behavioral policy. Now there is.
The time has come to make it the same for everybody.