If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell really wants to send a message to Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, he shouldn't be thinking solely about a steep fine or a suspension. Goodell also should be eyeing taking away draft picks, which are the only currency that has real value when it comes to disciplining wealthy men in team sports. The minute Goodell snatched a second-round pick or even a couple of mid-round selections from somebody as powerful as Irsay, the entire league would take notice. His credibility also wouldn't be nearly as questionable as it's become in the wake of this entire episode.
Irsay and Goodell are back in the news today because of recent ESPN reports that Goodell is contemplating suspending Irsay for six to eight games and fining him $1 million for the owner's current legal problems. Irsay faces two misdemeanor counts stemming from his arrest in Carmel, Indiana, on March 16, when police allege he was operating a vehicle while intoxicated and with a controlled substance in his body. Ever since that day, Goodell has faced relentless scrutiny -- mainly from players and NFL Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith -- for the amount of time he's taken to punish Irsay on this matter. The popular belief is that if Irsay were Brandon Marshall or Jared Allen, Goodell already would've used the league's personal conduct policy to sting him with a painful suspension.
Goodell has been able to defend his inaction so far by pointing to the need for due process, as Irsay wasn't formally charged until May 23 and still faces a hearing on June 19. The fact an Indiana court suspended Irsay's license last week in connection with the incident -- state law requires a suspension if a suspect refuses a blood test during a traffic stop, which Irsay did -- only intensified the matter. That now leaves the ball in Goodell's court, where he'll have to make the most scrutinized decision of the personal conduct policy era. Even though he'd be punishing one of the very men who hired him, he can't leave any doubts about whether he holds owners, executives and coaches to a higher standard than the men who play the game for a living.
This is why a suspension and a fine don't make nearly enough sense in this matter. There is no way that forcing Irsay to miss six to eight games has the same impact as it would on a player. He'd still be making tons of money over the course of the season. He'd still be watching the people he's hired run his franchise. Unless there is some unknown stipulation about what owners lose while suspended -- we don't know if he loses the power to participate in league matters or if he forfeits the revenue that would be generated during the time of his punishment -- it's impossible to see the major impact here. It's not as if you're talking about an owner such as Dallas' Jerry Jones, who is immersed in the daily operations of his team.
The only predictable thing that would come from banishing Irsay is smart public relations. However, people don't learn lessons from such moves, especially not those who have Irsay's wealth and power. The entire idea of the personal conduct policy -- which Goodell enacted in 2007 -- is to alter behavior and encourage better decision-making. If Goodell wants to make players feel as if he's not being hypocritical, he'd be better off not even trying to sell them on this option as something akin to bringing down the hammer.
The same holds true for a fine. A $1 million fine certainly would hurt any player who wound up with such a penalty. On the other hand, NFL teams are extremely valuable commodities, and it's fair to think the Colts are worth well over $1 billion to Irsay. That franchise probably nets $1 million on a bad week.
Draft picks, however, carry an entirely different level of impact. They directly affect a team's ability to compete, and losing them hurts everybody in the organization. If owners really are to be held to a higher standard under Goodell's policy, then they should feel the pain where it hurts most. Owners always can make more money. It's far more difficult to recover from the pain of not being able to add a player to your roster in a sport where competitive balance shifts on an annual basis.
It's not as if there isn't a precedent here. When Goodell went after the New Orleans Saints for operating a bounty program, he took away their second-round picks in both the 2012 and 2013 drafts while also issuing suspensions and fines to the key participants in that scandal. Goodell also docked the New England Patriots a first-round pick in the wake of the Spygate scandal. Although the suspensions of four Saints players were later overturned on appeal, Goodell's intentions in both cases were made clearly and firmly known.
The key thing to remember in those situations is that neither Saints owner Tom Benson nor Patriots owner Bob Kraft was directly involved in the controversy. They may not have liked the punishments, but they understood Goodell's need to protect the integrity of their sport. Now that need has reached a level where Goodell has to be even bolder in his desire to protect the shield. As awkward as it may be to punish one of his bosses, he can't allow this moment to result in his critics having more ammunition to hurl at his policies.
Goodell's biggest problem in all this -- aside from players' contention that he is disingenuous in his desire to hold everybody to the same standard -- is that NBA commissioner Adam Silver just set the bar pretty high when it comes to disciplining owners. Silver wasted little time in literally calling for the end of Donald Sterling's reign as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers after racist statements uttered by Sterling were leaked to the media. It didn't matter that Sterling might have been set up or had private conversations illegally taped, and it didn't matter that he had been a team owner for more than three decades. Silver saw which way the wind was blowing and knew he had to end the growing questions of how he would deal with a powerful man in his sport.
Even though Sterling's statements represent a different scenario than Irsay's alleged transgressions, there is still the same basic issue at stake here. If commissioners are going to talk about integrity and honor in their sports, then they have to be courageous enough to apply that same code to everybody who benefits from their league. Irsay deserves credit for immediately entering a rehabilitation facility after an arrest that is his first offense -- he has admitted to having a history of abusing painkillers and is alleged to have had oxycodone and/or hydrocodone in his body when police stopped him -- but this isn't only about a man needing to get help. It's about Goodell needing to stay true to his word.
It was easy to punish the likes of Michael Vick, Adam Jones and Ben Roethlisberger when their off-the-field issues made major headlines. It should be just as simple to hammer Irsay now that the evidence is mounting against him. The key for Goodell is to not fall back on the same tactics that he's used when punishing players. If he really wants to avoid another controversy like the one Irsay has created, he must be willing to punish the men who hired him in a meaningful way.