All eyes on NFL commissioner

Posted: March 19, 2014

IT IS going to be interesting to see what kind of disciplinary actions, if any, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell takes against Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay.

On Sunday night, Irsay was arrested in suburban Indianapolis. Police said he was driving while intoxicated and was also in possession of numerous prescription drugs.

Irsay faces a preliminary misdemeanor charge of driving while intoxicated and four felony counts of possession of a controlled substance. A hearing is scheduled for March 26. He was released from Hamilton County Jail after posting $22,500 bond.

If convicted on the felony charges, Irsay could face 6 months to 3 years in prison on each count.

Police in Carmel, Ind., said Irsay failed several field-sobriety tests and that the "Schedule IV prescription drugs were not associated with any prescription bottles found in the vehicle."

In 2002, Irsay admitted he had become dependent on painkillers after several years of orthopedic operations but said he had overcome the problem through treatment. In a tweet last October, he said, "I don't drink . . . haven't in over 15 years.''

If found guilty of these charges, Irsay is subject to the NFL personal-conduct policy - the one the league routinely uses to suspend, fine or suspend and fine players.

Myra Borshoff Cook, a spokeswoman for Irsay, declined to comment. Colts spokesman Avis Roper said the team still was gathering facts.

"The team will issue additional statements when the facts are sorted and we are aware of the next steps to this process," Roper said.

Greg Aiello, NFL senior vice president of communications, has said the policy applies to all NFL personnel.

The NFL also has a stated policy that personnel must "avoid conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League. This requirement applies to players, coaches, other team employees, owners, game officials and all others privileged to work in the National Football League."

We know the league routinely punishes players and has disciplined a few high-ranking team officials for actions that have been on par with what Irsay is alleged to have done.

So the question is, with precedent already set, will Goodell bring down the hammer on one of the 32 NFL owners who are actually his employers?

While the NFL has presented that owners and people of authority are held to a higher standard than other employees, including players, that issue has rarely been put to the test.

In 2010, Goodell used the "higher standard" argument to suspend Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand for 30 days and fine him $100,000 after he pleaded guilty to driving while impaired.

According to reports, Goodell wrote a letter to Lewand saying, "You occupy a special position of responsibility and trust . . . As we have discussed, those who occupy leadership positions are held to a higher standard of conduct that exceeds what is ordinarily expected of players or members of the general public."

So, by NFL standards, who would occupy a higher leadership position than an owner? Irsay has the final say on every move the Colts make. Nothing is done without his final say. His decision-making is ultimately the designer and establisher of how the Colts are run and perceived by the general public. As one of the 32 owners of the NFL conglomerate, Irsay's public actions are a direct reflection on the highest level of the league.

It's not just going to be the NFL Players Association that will be watching to see what Goodell does. The natural assumption is that Goodell has no choice but to treat Irsay as if he was a player and discipline him in the same manner should he be convicted. But let's be honest: We know that things are never that simple when we're talking about dealing with ownership in the same manner as other employees.

We've all seen different owners being interviewed and appearing to be a bit tipsy after spending several hours in their bar-stocked luxury suites at games. It's generally treated with a wink, a smile and a snarky comment, then forgotten until the next owner does something similar.

Getting busted for DWI, having your mug shot go out all over the worldwide web and having bond set at $22,500 is a bit too much to overlook.

So now Goodell and the 31 other owners who set his salary have to come up with an extremely public reaction.

If Irsay is criminally convicted, Goodell almost has to do something significant to penalize him, lest the general belief that owners never will be disciplined like players is confirmed by the NFL itself. Pure hypocrisy is not something the NFL wants glued to its public-relations résumé.

Goodell earns part of his hefty salary to take the heat for the owners when league-wide decisions are made that are unpopular with the public. It is at moments like that when Goodell is actually supposed to emphasize his status as the ultimate decision-maker for the NFL when everyone knows that is far from the truth.

If Irsay is convicted of any of the charges, this is a theoretically easy call for Goodell. We'll see if the people who actually run the NFL allow him to make it.


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Columns: ph.ly/Smallwood

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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