In separate interviews last week with the four players alleged to have been PED users in an Al Jazeera investigation, the NFL reportedly brought no new evidence or witnesses to the table. And that may have been the point.
The league used the threat of suspension to get the four players—Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers of the Green Bay Packers, James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and free agent Mike Neal—to submit to the meetings. It was a dick-swinging power play from a league office intent on giving the impression it’s taking the so-called scourge of doping seriously, even when it has nothing more to go on than the since-recanted hidden-camera allegations of a former pharmacy intern.
If the league publicly clears all four players—as is now expected—it will still likely have accomplished its objective by squeezing them the way it did. That’s because the NFL may be playing the long game here, with an eye on the next collective bargaining agreement, which is still five years down the road. If the league can do all it can to make commissioner Roger Goodell’s absolute disciplinary power as intolerable as possible, it can set the bar for changing that during the next round of CBA talks. And with that leverage, the league may try to wring some major concession from the players—an expanded schedule, say—without having to give up a significant economic compromise from the owners.
The league, after all, already has a performance-enhancing drug policy with a specific punishment schedule. It also requires players to cooperate if there is cause to do so. To wit:
The fear was that the league was establishing a dangerous precedent by threatening to suspend players simply for not cooperating. Something something “conduct detrimental” something something. “The union ... is focused on the number of claims that are given teeth when the NFL opens such an investigation,” Albert Breer wrote over at the MMQB. “The union’s fear is that every accusation on social media gets legs, even those lacking real evidence.”
Breer saw a protracted fight as the only way for the players to do “something, anything, to change with the way the league and the commissioner do business” under the current CBA, which runs through the 2020 season. But in light of its federal appeals court victories in the Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson cases, the NFL seemed to have little to fear from another court challenge from the union.
Besides, as Bill Parise, Harrison’s agent, put it to me over the phone in response to a question about whether the league had been emboldened by those recent court victories, “Do they need to be emboldened? I think you’re talking about an organization that has bullied its employees, and continues to do so. I don’t know that they were looking for a mandate to do that.”
The union was prepared for a fight before the players decided to meet with Goodell’s investigators. “We were saying, ‘Show us cause,’” Parise said. But then came the threat of suspension coupled with a deadline. “None of these guys want to put their team in a position of not having them,” Parise said. As a result, the NFLPA went from advising the players not to meet with the league to supporting their decision to do so.
Interestingly, even though Harrison and the other players initially did not want to meet with the league, Parise said he’d have been fine with it if the league had handled the entire matter with something approaching a spirit of cooperation.
“If I’m an employer, and [people] in my organization have been nationally accused of wrongdoing, I’m going to do an investigation,” Parise said. “I think it’s proper, I think it’s transparent, I think it’s the right thing to do.
“I think the way you do that is you go to the person and you say, ‘Look, I apologize for having to do this. But please understand that I have to do this. Can we sit here and talk about this?’ You don’t do it by sending a memo saying, ‘If you don’t meet with me, I’m going to fire you.’”
Remember: Ryan Howard and Ryan Zimmerman, the two baseball players cited in the Al Jazeera report, were eventually cleared by MLB. Both “fully cooperated” with MLB’s investigation—perhaps because neither had a gun put to his end to compel him to talk.
But the NFL is run by a bumbling autocrat whose ability to rake in cash has kept the league’s management class ecstatic about his overall job performance. Why wouldn’t he use his total discretion as a cudgel to try to pound out something from the help like an 18-game schedule?
“If your goal is to create a hostile work environment, then everything you do is a conflict,” Parise told me. “If your goal is to unify people and work together, then it’s a different approach.”
Ex-Deadspinner Dom Cosentino is a reporter and writer. He’s on Twitter @domcosentino.