NFL needs arbitrator working with Roger Goodell on discipline issues

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

As NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reviews his now-rebuked decision to dole out suspensions to four players involved in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, there is a bigger issue he needs to consider:

He needs to formulate a policy that is fair and, ultimately, more cooperative with players than is currently allowed.

Of course, he doesn't really have to do that. Based on a three-member panel's ruling Friday to overturn player suspensions, the decision is really just back in Goodell's lap. For all anyone knows, Goodell could rewrite the language of his decision and make the penalties even worse.

Don't expect that.

That's because Goodell privately knows, as people around him have admitted, that he went too far in this case. The season-long suspension of linebacker Jonathan Vilma, eight games for current free agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, four for defensive end Will Smith and three for current Browns linebacker Scott Fujita were all far too harsh in the grand scope of the situation.

Or as one league source put it recently: "He would have given them lighter penalties if the [NFL Players Association] would have worked it out with us. But when they wouldn't work with us, he felt like he had to set the standard."

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In other words, Goodell has always wanted cooperation on this matter. He wanted a joint show of force between the league and the union repudiating bounties and any other pay-for-performance or pay-to-injure scheme that can get concocted in a locker room.

The problem is, Goodell needs to show a willingness to create a system that gives the players a real voice. That's the overarching message you hear again and again from players.

Yes, the players really have only themselves to blame for this system because they agreed to it as part of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. When it came time to vote on all the different facets of the agreement, the players essentially took the money and worried about the rest later.

Or as New York Giants owner John Mara noted in August: "This is something we negotiated for, to have the commissioner have that type of final authority."

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Again, that's fine and it makes sense to a large extent. There are many cases where the commissioner needs to make a final call. Whether it's a gambling case or a situation involving violent behavior or some other issue of personal conduct, the commissioner has to protect the league.

But the commissioner can't also be the appeals process, as he has been to an increasing level since he took over in 2006 and later formed the personal conduct policy in reaction to player misconduct.

The bounty case is a prime example. Goodell wanted to make a strong stand against undue violence in the game. That's important, particularly at a time when the concussion issue and associated lawsuits are facing the game. At the same time, there is a chasm over the interpretation of the evidence in this case. What the league has produced so far is questionable. The league has indicated it has more, but can't produce that evidence for fear of identifying its sources, which is problematic.

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That's where an independent third party is critical. If the league wants to protect its "whistle blower" policy, it can't have a situation where players get to see all the evidence. Of course, that goes against one of the tenants of our justice system. While that system doesn't necessarily apply in a private business matter, the failure to have something in place automatically makes people suspicious.

Thus, Goodell needs to reverse course in matters like this. Instead of trying to collect and protect his power like a squirrel with a nut, Goodell needs to let some of it go. In a situation where evidence gathered from an internal league investigation can't be shared, have a third party review it and determine whether the commissioner is correct.

In that way, there can be growth in terms of both trust in the commissioner's power and understanding by the players that conduct is critical to the game.

Right now, that trust and understanding are at a critical stage. If Goodell decides to play tough guy again and hands down similar penalties, this foolishness is going to continue. And that's extremely unhealthy for the game. Right now, instead of celebrating court decisions, the league and the players should be celebrating a new season.

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This scandal has lasted nearly six months, complete with back-and-forth quibbling between the union, the players, Goodell and the media. None of that is healthy for the growth of the game.

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