For some people it’s a dream scenario, the opportunity to discipline your boss. For NFL commissioner Roger Goodell it’s a nightmare scenario.
Goodell works for the NFL owners. He is paid handsomely to do so ($44.2 million in 2012). So, it’s a bit awkward now that the Guardian of the Game, the Keeper of the Crest has to decide whether to crack down on one of the league’s owners, erratic and eccentric Colts owner Jim Irsay, who was arrested in March for driving while impaired in an Indianapolis suburb. Irsay was allegedly so hopped up on pain pills he couldn’t stand up for field sobriety testing and was driving a car loaded with bottles of prescription drugs, according to police in Carmel, Ind.
Goodell never has had a problem meting out justice under the NFL’s personal conduct policy, just ask the players. His gavel usually drops with the speed of Adrian Peterson and the force of Rob Gronkowski. He is going to punish Irsay. It would be a shock if he did not.
But the question is when and to what degree?
Goodell has to set an example by making one of Irsay. He has to put the good of the game above his pay grade. Goodell has to act swiftly and decisively. Irsay should not be held to the same standard as the wayward players who tarnish the NFL’s sacred shield. He should be held to a higher one by Goodell.
That’s not just my opinion. It’s also Goodell’s, at least if he follows precedent.
In 2010, Goodell suspended Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand for 30 days (later commuted to 21 days) and fined him $100,000 after he pled guilty to operating a motor vehicle while impaired. Lewand registered a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit in Michigan of .08.
In a letter to Lewand, Goodell wrote, “ . . . 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.”
Fining a billionaire even a million dollars is going to be a largely symbolic gesture, but forcing him to not have any interaction with his team for the first month of the season and docking a late-round draft choice should suffice.
Let’s be honest. Sports commissioners are not neutral. In the parlance of the HBO series “Game of Thrones” they’re the hand of the king. They’re management. In labor disputes they always side with the owners. The authoritative patina of independence and objective decision-making in the job is a bit of a facade.
One need to look no further than Major League Baseball, where they cut out the middle man by making a former owner, Bud Selig, commissioner.
Despite being a highly paid owner there is a responsibility to the integrity of the game that comes along with a commissionership. Every so often that responsibility supersedes fealty to the owners.
In Foxborough on Thursday for a moms football safety clinic that the Patriots were hosting, Goodell said he had not ruled on Irsay yet because the Colts owner had just been charged May 23.
Originally, Irsay faced a preliminary charge of driving while intoxicated and four preliminary felony counts of possession of a controlled substance. However, he was formally charged with just a pair of misdemeanors, operating a vehicle while intoxicated and operating a vehicle with a controlled substance in a person’s body.
Based on blood samples Irsay was forced to provide, via warrant, while being held, the substances in his body were the opioids oxycodone and/or hydrocodone, according to prosecutors. Irsay, who as far back as 2002 admitted he has a history of pain-killer abuse, immediately entered a rehabilitation facility after his arrest.
How much more proof do you need?
The league’s personal conduct policy does call for Goodell in most cases to wait for the end of legal proceedings. But there is a clause that says if the incident involves “significant bodily harm or risk to third parties, or an immediate and substantial risk to the integrity and reputation of the NFL,” he doesn’t have to wait.
The longer Goodell waits the more a perception of a double standard is fueled. This is a league that fines players for wearing the wrong-colored shoes or the wrong brand of T-shirts while standing on the sideline.
Fining and punishing a drug-abusing owner shouldn’t be that hard.
It doesn’t help that since his arrest Irsay has been allowed to attend the league’s owners’ meetings, work the NFL Draft in May, and make a Super Bowl bid presentation at the NFL’s spring meetings last month.
Events such as these are more important to an owner than being barred from games.
NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith told ESPN on Thursday that a “credibility gap” exists when it comes to punishments levied for player conduct and what is happening with Irsay.
“There isn’t the same speed or deliberate action when it comes to an owner, and that’s a problem,” said Smith.
Goodell bristled at the suggestion that he was showing any favoritism toward Irsay.
“There are several players that we haven’t taken any action on either,” said Goodell. “We like to get the facts. We like to be thorough. We like to understand them. Charges were just filed last week, so I don’t believe there is a credibility gap.
“You can judge us when we make our final determination, which you undoubtedly will and so will everybody else. That’s fair. But don’t make judgments until we’ve had an opportunity to do what’s in the best interest of everyone, which is getting the facts.”
When you’re the NFL’s thin blue line you can’t have a thin skin.
The facts are clear. Irsay has a drug problem.
Compassion and punishment for Irsay are not mutually exclusive.
Goodell needs to display both.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.