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Can the NFL make good out of its discipline debacle?

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice Associated Press/Photo by Nick Wass

Can the NFL make good out of its discipline debacle?

The NFL Players Association appealed Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension and the Minnesota Vikings benched Adrian Peterson for the second time Wednesday as different camps proposed solutions to the NFL’s disciplinary upheaval.

“This action taken by our union is to protect the due process rights of all NFL players,” the union said in a statement Tuesday night. “The NFLPA appeal is based on supporting facts that reveal a lack of a fair and impartial process, including the role of the office of the commissioner of the NFL.”

The union accuses Commissioner Roger Goodell of punishing Rice twice for the same action—punching his wife and knocking her out in a casino elevator in February—despite knowing all the relevant facts in the case. Rice had served one game of a controversial two-game suspension when gossip site TMZ posted a video Sept. 8 from inside the elevator. The Baltimore Ravens immediately cut him and the NFL extended his suspension indefinitely.

Some legal analysts think Rice’s appeal has a good chance because of the NFL’s inconsistency. The ongoing backlash from the league’s gaffes has highlighted Goodell’s role under the Personal Conduct Policy as the only authority on league discipline—a position to which he appointed himself in 2007.

The NFL, as with all employers, isn’t bound to the “innocent until proven guilty” doctrine. But apart from a new policy on drug use, the league has no established formula to handle discipline on criminal matters.

Goodell handed Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a four-game suspension in 2010 for his involvement in an alleged sexual assault. The suspension came after authorities decided not to press charges, making him the first player suspended for violating the Personal Conduct Policy without being arrested.

Back in Baltimore, the wife of Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs has accused him repeatedly since 2007 of beating and terrorizing her and her children. Suggs has been the subject of several protective orders but not criminal charges for domestic violence. He also hasn’t faced discipline from the NFL.

Since the outcry over Rice’s initial two-game suspension in July—and especially since the punching video went public—the league has jumped to action on both discipline and advocacy. The sandstorm of social media fury over the Rice video quickly wore away the league’s credibility, despite Goodell’s prior apology on Aug. 28 for his lax treatment of Rice and his announcement of a new six-game minimum suspension for domestic violence suspects—a policy he developed with anti-domestic violence groups.

In that atmosphere of anger, news of Peterson’s charges broke Friday. Peterson was indicted for causing bruises and lacerations to his son during a spanking with a wooden switch. The Vikings benched Peterson for Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots and reinstated him Monday, only to suspend him indefinitely with pay from all team activities early Wednesday after the Radisson hotel group pulled its Vikings sponsorship and sponsors such as Nike cut ties with Peterson. Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf said at a press conference Wednesday that the team “made a mistake" by reinstating him. His first court appearance is in October.

The league has appointed an independent former FBI investigator to review what it knew about the Rice video and when, as allegations of dishonesty and cover-ups continue. On Monday, the league created a “vice president of social responsibility” and appointed as advisers three women with experience in domestic violence advocacy and special victims cases. The advisers will help the league develop many of the initiatives and trainings listed in Goodell’s Aug. 28 apology and promise to owners to change the culture.

In response to Rice’s appeal and Peterson’s new suspension—though different situations with many voices arguing over the official narratives—the NFL’s critics are pushing for two major changes to league discipline practices.

First, a growing number of voices from domestic violence advocates to Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton are urging individual teams not to abandon due process with players accused of domestic violence, but to take a law-enforcement approach, in which officers are suspended with pay during most investigations.

“[Peterson] is a public figure. And his actions, as described, are a public embarrassment to the Vikings organization and the state of Minnesota,” said Dayton, the main force to help the Vikings win public funding for their new $1 billion stadium.

The Vikings apparently agreed early Wednesday. And given hints from around the league, other players facing domestic violence allegations—including Carolina’s Greg Hardy and San Francisco’s Ray McDonald—may soon be suspended under the same principle.

Second, Goodell appears poised to lose some power. “Obviously, there’s an issue with player conduct … and maybe it's time to take that out of the commissioner’s hands and put it into a neutral arbitration process, where there can be a fair process for everybody involved,” NFLPA president Eric Winston said Monday in a CNN interview, before the Rice appeal.

Placing Goodell’s disciplinary powers in the hands of neutral arbiters and investigators has precedent. Unlike the personal conduct policy, the NFLPA has a say in the drug policy. The two sides last week reached an agreement after a three-year standoff. The deal creates a neutral arbitration process for every player appeal of a positive drug test.

Following that precedent, the players union demanded a neutral, independent judge in Rice’s appeal. Many believe the league’s recent moves amounted to a public relations stunt that some have called a “public lynching.” But others say the NFL hasn’t lost its chance to use its weight in the culture for good.

“Do I feel duped by the NFL? Do I feel that they called us in as a PR move? No. I think they know what they are capable of. They just need to do it,” said Esta Soler, president of Futures Without Violence, which Roger Goodell consulted while formulating his Aug. 28 letter.

Women’s rights activists at the National Organization for Women and UltraViolet are still calling for Goodell’s resignation, though. And companies like Anheuser-Busch, McDonalds, and Campbell Soup Co., warned the NFL Tuesday that it better start getting things right and setting an example. Sponsors pump more than $1 billion into the league each year. “We understand. We are taking action, and there will be much more to come,” the NFL responded.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Andrew Branch Andrew is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.

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