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Keidel: Are NFL Players Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

By Jason Keidel

A labor lawyer can tell you the page and paragraph, the subsection and fine print. But you need not be one to realize that if the battle between the NFL and the NFLPA were a boxing match, it would be Mike Tyson vs Peter McNeely.

I’m not sure which section of the NFL CBA gives such weight to Roger Goodell’s gavel. But he’s not just bullying players around, he’s all but mocking them, all but knocking them out and preening over their prostrate bodies.

We can circle the ring over Tom Brady and the Deflategate debacle, but many feel his four-game suspension was akin to taking a polo mallet to a spider.

Likewise, the league has insisted that four players named in that Al Jazeera report on PED use be summoned to HQ for a chat. It’s an odd, if not abusive, use of power on its own. But it becomes surreal when you consider the reporter recanted every part of the story. It seems hearsay has become more than circumstantial. It’s become hard proof, like an eyewitness, an audio or video tape recording of the miscreants in full malfeasance.

Let’s understand this. Someone wrote that James Harrison, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and Mike Neal received shipments of HGH. Then the writer recanted. Yet the league still treats the aforementioned foursome like prime suspects in a doping ring.

I’m not sure if Goodell is bored or well-oiled with notions of power. There have to be more pressing issues for the league office to ponder these days. Like why this quartet must be called onto the rug, yet Giants kicker Josh Brown skates with a one-game suspension after a domestic violence arrest, and claims from his wife that Brown has abused her on at least 20 other occasions.

The league says that neither Brown’s wife nor the authorities supplied them with enough evidence to press onward. Fine. But the collective bargaining agreement says that the league need not have more proof to hurl the book at Brown. Yet they ease off the peddle on the third rail of personal conduct.

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Yet they threaten four players who have done nothing demonstrably wrong with indefinite suspensions. No proof of doping = sword of Damocles; an arrest for domestic violence = tap on the wrist.

I don’t mean to focus too much on the Giants’ placekicker. It’s just a glaring example of the warped sense of justice that seems to plague the league these days. Going back to Ray Rice, who got two games for literally knocking his soon-to-be wife unconscious, until that video tape unfurled before the nation, the NFL just can’t seem to plant the Shield in the right arena.

The patron saint of pro football, Peyton Manning, who was also fingered in the Al Jazeera story, met with league officials. They are content with Manning’s account and have cleared him of all suspicion. That had to make the NFLPA wince. Under no legal or labor obligation to speak with the NFL brass, Manning strolled right into the office and cooperated with the investigation down to the last vowel.

So it makes Matthews, Harrison, Peppers, etc. look like they are hiding behind a cloak of deception. Each has slowly waved the white flag, conceding to the epic power of the Shield and the de facto monarch that is Mr. Goodell. And that’s a shame.

There’s the silly notion that when Person A is unwilling to speak with the authorities, he’s clearly got something to hide. But these four players are standing on principle. If a detective approaches to you and says he thinks you have an illegal hand grenade stashed under your pillow, you need not be guilty to squirm at the prospects of cops swarming your house looking for hand grenades. It’s not a precise analogy, but you get the point.

Who doesn’t get it? DeMaurice Smith and the lawyers who fight for the players’ rights. Aaron Rodgers has openly lamented the fact that the owners have the players in a monetary, legal and public relations headlock. Players are scared to death to express their cultural or political views out of concern they will be implicitly blackballed.

But it’s completely understandable that these four football players didn’t simply and instantly surrender to the commissioner’s demands. Goodell’s threats are unfair and overreaching; they set a perilous precedent. It seems the NFL is entirely counterintuitive, branding their employees guilty until proven innocent.

You’d like to think an industry that not only owns the sports page, but, to quote Albert Brooks in Concussion, owns a day of the week, can figure out a way to split $10 billion annually and amiably. Can’t they work out a way to treat their players with decency and diplomacy, behind closed doors or through back channels, instead of these gaseous accusations played out on the virtual stage of social media?

Maybe we’ll find these guys suspended for crimes never committed. Then we’ll have to suspend belief in a league that shoots first and asks questions later.

Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.

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