IRVING, Texas — NFL owners moved quickly and unanimously Wednesday to change the league’s personal conduct policy. Now the question is how, or whether, the players’ union responds.
The league announced it will hire a special counsel for investigations and conduct to oversee initial discipline, but Commissioner Roger Goodell will retain authority to rule on appeals. The commissioner also may appoint a panel of independent experts to participate in appeals.
Amid questions over his handling of domestic violence cases involving Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, the union wants Goodell removed entirely from the disciplinary process. The players believe any changes to the personal conduct policy should be part of labor negotiations.
Asked whether he anticipated a challenge from the union, Goodell deferred to NFL general counsel Jeff Pash, who said the owners’ decision was “entirely consistent with the collective bargaining agreement.”
“I don’t know whether the union will challenge it or not, but we’ve given it a lot of thought,” Pash said. “And I would hope they don’t challenge. We’d be happy to sit down with them again tomorrow if they wanted to have some further conversations about it. I don’t think there’s any need for legal challenges.”
The union has sought negotiations with the NFL on any revamping of the policy, and said Tuesday it would “reserve the right to take any and all actions” should the owners act unilaterally. The union could consider the vote by owners a violation of the collective bargaining agreement reached in 2011, giving the union cause to file a grievance.
Among the union’s options is pursuing an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board. The players could argue this policy is a change in terms and conditions of employment; the National Labor Relations Act says such changes in unionized situations are subject to collective bargaining.
“Our union has not been offered the professional courtesy of seeing the NFL’s new personal conduct policy before it hit the presses,” the union said in a statement issued after Wednesday’s vote. “Their unilateral decision and conduct today is the only thing that has been consistent over the past few months.”
Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman reiterated criticisms from other players Wednesday that the NFL was “making things up as they go along” by not pursuing policy changes through collective bargaining.
“You would think, you would hope anything having to do with the players and especially discipline and things like that, players would have some say so in the policy,” Sherman said. “At least something we could agree on, everybody is comfortable with, but obviously that isn’t what they saw fit.”
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he was “aware of a lot of the things that the union is an advocate of.”
“This differs in some respects,” Jones said. “At the end of the day, we’re all trying to do the same thing. We’re trying to influence and diminish domestic violence.”
After the Rice and Peterson cases, a more extensive list of prohibited conduct will be included in the policy, as well as specific criteria for paid leave for anyone charged with a violent crime.
A suspension of six games without pay for violations involving assault, sexual assault, battery, domestic violence, child abuse and other forms of family violence will be in effect, but with consideration given to mitigating or aggravating circumstances.
“The policy is comprehensive. It is strong. It is tough. And it better for everyone associated with the NFL,” Goodell said.
That new policy will include a conduct committee made up of several team owners and a pair of former players who are now part of ownership groups: Warrick Dunn (Atlanta) and John Stallworth (Pittsburgh).
Chaired by Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill, the committee will review the personal conduct policy at least annually and recommend appropriate changes. The group will seek advice from outside experts, the NFL said.
Last month, an arbitrator threw out Rice’s indefinite suspension by the NFL for hitting his then-fiancée in a hotel elevator, freeing him to play again.
Former U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones said Goodell’s decision in September to change Rice’s original suspension from two games to indefinite was “arbitrary” and an “abuse of discretion.”
After noting the two-game suspension given to Rice was insufficient, Goodell had changed the minimum punishment under the personal conduct policy to six games. After a video of the punch became public, Rice was released by the Ravens, and Goodell suspended him indefinitely.
Rice and the union contended he was essentially sentenced twice, and Jones agreed, saying Rice “did not lie to or mislead the NFL.”
Peterson’s appeal of a league suspension lasting until next April 15 was heard by Harold Henderson last week. Henderson, a former NFL executive, was appointed by Goodell to rule on the appeal and is expected to do so soon.
Peterson is seeking reinstatement, something Goodell said he would not consider before April 15.
The 2012 NFL MVP hasn’t played for the Minnesota Vikings since Week 1 after he was charged with child abuse in Texas. He was placed on paid leave while the legal process played out, and he pleaded no contest Nov. 4 to misdemeanor reckless assault for injuring his 4-year-old son with a wooden switch.