Superstar running back Adrian Peterson's season is now officially over and, in a sense, he has Ray Rice to thank for the lengthy suspension that was imposed on him this week by embattled NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Don't misunderstand. Peterson is totally responsible for the behavior that put him on Goodell's exempt list while the child abuse charges he faced were adjudicated. He took a switch to his 4-year-old son and caused injuries severe enough to warrant a felony indictment, then pleaded no contest two weeks ago to a misdemeanor charge of reckless assault.
It's fairly obvious, however, that Goodell's decision to suspend him until at least April 15 was heavily influenced by the Rice scandal, which focused a very harsh spotlight on the NFL's arbitrary and incoherent disciplinary system.
When a national furor erupted upon the release of the damning second Rice elevator video, Goodell told everyone who would listen that he got it wrong when he initially suspended Rice for only two games for his infamous elevator assault on then-fiance Janay Palmer last February.
The NFL took so much flak for that laughably light penalty that Goodell instituted a new domestic violence policy in August and went far beyond it when he extended Rice's suspension indefinitely in the wake of the second video's release. Rice and the NFL will find out from arbitration judge Barbara S. Jones sometime in the next week whether the league went too far and violated Rice's rights under the league's labor agreement by punishing him a second time for the same offense.
The Peterson suspension also is going to be appealed by the NFL Players Association, which responded with this statement on Tuesday morning:
"The decision by the NFL to suspend Adrian Peterson is another example of the credibility gap that exists between the agreements they make and the actions they take. Since Adrian's legal matter was adjudicated, the NFL has ignored their obligations and attempted to impose a new and arbitrary disciplinary proceeding."
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith went even further during an appearance on ESPN Radio's Mike & Mike show on Tuesday, clearly drawing a connection between the Rice and Peterson situations.
"You get the feeling over the last few months that the National Football League has simply been making it up as they go along." Smith said.
Goodell would have a tough time debating that point. He was generally lauded seven years ago for creating the tough player conduct policy that is commonly known as the "Goodell Doctrine," which gave him almost total authority to discipline players for off-field misbehavior, even in cases where their guilt or innocence had not yet been determined in court.
He used that power early on to levy strong penalties on repeat offenders such as Adam "Pacman" Jones and Chris Henry, but waited months for the legal process to proceed before suspending superstar Michael Vick for his role in an illegal dogfighting operation and did not weigh in on Rice until five months after the elevator incident.
Since then, Goodell has scrambled to "get it right," which is why he commissioned former FBI director Robert Mueller to investigate the league's handling of the Rice case and has reached out to a variety of experts to help him deal with the hot-button issues of domestic violence and sexual assault.
There's certainly nothing wrong with any of that, but the players union is right to question whether Goodell shifted gears during the Peterson case and came down harder on him to avoid more public scorn or to punish him for not attending a hearing called by the commissioner's office that the union felt was outside the jurisdiction of the sport's collective bargaining agreement.
No doubt, union officials were hoping that the well-publicized mishandling of the Rice incident would spell the end of the "Goodell Doctrine" and compel the commissioner to negotiate a new player conduct policy that includes more objective disciplinary standards. There have been some discussions between the league and the union about possible changes in the way the commissioner handles disciplinary cases, but it should be apparent from the Peterson suspension that Goodell isn't interested in ceding any of his disciplinary authority.
The NFLPA already has said it will appeal the suspension and demand a neutral arbitrator hear the case, though Goodell has the right under the collective bargaining agreement to decide who hears the appeal.
Goodell didn't have much choice but to agree to an independent arbitrator in the Rice case, since his bungling of the situation had come under intense public criticism. It will be interesting to see if he hunkers down this time and re-asserts his authority over the appeal process.
Maybe the "Goodell Doctrine" is not dead after all.