It had become an annual ritual for the NFL: beginning a season with a major controversy over a matter of player discipline looming.
The 2015 season played out with Tom Brady and the NFL Players Association clashing with the league in court over the four-game suspension given to the quarterback in the Deflategate saga. The 2016 season started with Brady sitting out the New England Patriots’ first four games after dropping his courtroom fight following the NFL’s victory on appeal. It took the first half of last season for the league to prevail in court and secure the right to enforce its six-game suspension of Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott under the sport’s personal conduct policy.
As the 2018 season nears, there was the potential for a repeat, with the league investigating Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston for a 2016 incident in Arizona involving an Uber driver.
But the NFL, for a change, has managed to resolve a significant player-disciplinary case without an all-out courtroom confrontation. Winston will serve a three-game suspension and will not appeal after reaching what one person familiar with the case called a settlement of his penalty.
The suspension was announced Thursday by the NFL, which said in a written statement that its investigation “had concluded that Winston violated the Personal Conduct Policy by touching the driver in an inappropriate and sexual manner without her consent and that disciplinary action was necessary and appropriate.”
Winston is a prominent player, as a former Heisman Trophy winner at Florida State and the top overall selection in the 2015 NFL draft. He had a well-documented history of off-field incidents while in college.
But this case has not generated the public outcry nor the controversy that the Brady and Elliott cases did. And now that the league has avoided a return trip to federal court, there is the prospect that the 2018 season might proceed without an exhaustive public reexamination of the merits of the NFL’s system of player justice.
“This was in everyone’s best interest,” one person familiar with the league’s inner workings said.
The NFLPA has said it intends to make NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s authority in player discipline a negotiating topic in the deliberations over the sport’s next collective bargaining agreement. It’s an issue that’s not going away. But this time, a disciplinary case was resolved without the league and union each seeking to prove a larger point, and being willing to go to court to do so.
The NFLPA fought what it felt was the good fight in the Brady and Elliott matters, challenging the NFL for what the union believed was a flawed and unfair disciplinary process in each case. But in both of those cases, the union and the player merely managed to delay the inevitable. The league ultimately prevailed and imposed the suspension of its choosing, and Goodell’s authority in disciplinary matters was reinforced.
But at what cost to the sport? Owners of NFL teams and league leaders have spent the past few years bemoaning their inability to keep fans focused on the on-field product. The courtroom maneuvering in the Brady and Elliott cases contributed to that.
Those legal fights weren’t the biggest contributors, of course, at least not last season. The turbulent 2017 season included Cowboys owner Jerry Jones trying unsuccessfully to keep Goodell’s contract extension from being completed. And it had a combative and highly divisive public debate over the sport’s national anthem policy after President Trump said last September that owners should fire any player who protests during the anthem.
Trump amplified the national controversy over the players’ protests and the NFL’s anthem policy to the point that the other issues faced by the league mostly have seemed insignificant in comparison. Owners felt they had to do something, and they modified the anthem policy at their May meeting in Atlanta.
“I know our fans want us to zero in on the game, zero in on football,” Jones said at that meeting. “They want to come to the game and get away from a lot of the other issues that are out here. … I’m trying to figure out the very best way for when somebody thinks NFL, they think about who’s starting at quarterback and who’s gonna come out hot in the third quarter. We’ve got to make sure that whatever we decide here, it’s oriented toward getting their minds on what’s going on on the football field.”
It is not clear whether the new anthem policy crafted by the owners will end the players’ protests or curb the controversy. That policy says that any player on the field for the anthem must stand. It gives players the option to remain in the locker room for the anthem if they choose. It also says that a team will be fined by the league if a player protests during the anthem, but it leaves the decision about whether to discipline a player for such a protest to the individual team.
Can the NFL manage to make the 2018 season about football? That remains to be seen. But the Winston resolution means there at least will not be a courtroom tussle over a disciplinary case factoring into the early-season equation.