By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Integrity. Integrity matters to the NFL more than anything else matters to the NFL. Except for the times when it doesn't.
And in the wake of Eli Manning settling his civil case for memorabilia fraud, you can bet that the quarterback will be granted one of those Integrity Exceptions that commissioner Roger Goodell tends to save almost exclusively for the New York Football Giants.
For background: Manning was accused of providing "game-worn" helmets and jerseys to a memorabilia dealer. Jury selection was to begin this week, and the trial would follow immediately. But just before the case went to trial, Manning settled the case out of court. No testifying, no more emails, nothing public. Just a paid settlement to the plaintiff.
Even though a leaked email from 2010 seemed to implicate Manning in the scheme, the NFL never really waded into the waters of potential discipline. As recently as April, with the trial looming, the NFL didn't even care to comment on the matter. The league likely hoped beyond hope that the situation would just go away. Such has been the leadership strategy that has gotten Goodell into many a jam -- and kept him out of a handful, too -- over the past decade-plus at the helm.
This time, though, it seems to have worked out for the league. The case was settled, thus saving Manning, the Giants and the NFL from potentially embarrassing information being spread around the country. While sports memorabilia fraud may not be at the forefront of the issues facing Americans at large, it is nevertheless a story which all involved parties would probably prefer to not propagate -- especially during the months of May and June, which are typically a bit of a down period in terms of NFL news. People just love to eat up a juicy "scandal" during these months. (Trust me.)
As for what happens next, Manning is certainly subject to NFL discipline. Settling out of court does not admit guilt, but then again, neither does destroying a cell phone. Of course, one might say that scheming memorabilia collectors out of money doesn't have any impact on the field and thus shouldn't result in NFL discipline. But making it rain in a strip club didn't help Adam "Pacman" Jones intercept any passes for the Titans; he still got hit with a suspension for an entire season.
"We must protect the integrity of the NFL," Goodell said back in 2007 when suspending Jones and his teammate, the late Chris Henry. "The highest standards of conduct must be met by everyone in the NFL because it is a privilege to represent the NFL, not a right. These players, and all members of our league, have to make the right choices and decisions in their conduct on a consistent basis."
Goodell added in a finger-wagging letter to both Jones and Henry: "Your conduct has brought embarrassment and ridicule upon yourself, your club, and the NFL, and has damaged the reputation of players throughout the league. ... You have engaged in conduct detrimental to the NFL and failed to live up to the standards expected of NFL players. Taken as a whole, this conduct warrants significant sanction."
While the events in which Jones and Henry involved themselves were slightly different than the charges brought against Manning, those words from the commissioner feel as though they could be applicable at this time. Back then, the standard was pretty clear: Engage in any off-field behavior that brings shame upon the league and breaches the "highest standards of conduct," and you can expect to get suspended.
Plus, actually being found guilty of anything is not a requirement for the NFL to drop a hammer on any player whenever Goodell feels doing so. Ezekiel Elliott can attest to this. So can the NFL's investigator in that case, someone who recommended no punishment for Elliott before promptly being excluded from the room when it came time to determine a punishment. Heck, nothing even technically needs to "happen" for the NFL to issue punishment. So long as the league can say something was "more probable than not" to have taken place, then a player who may have been "at least generally aware" of that thing more probably than not taking place can be hit with an unprecedented suspension.
That's the way that Goodell and the league like it. But they also don't like to treat the Giants like that.
A kicker who admits to domestic violence, just after the league institutes a mandatory six-game suspension for a first offense? Bah -- give him one game, see if anybody even notices. (Spoiler alert: people noticed.) Giants owner John Mara admitting that he knew about the domestic abuse but still re-signing the player and letting him play? Whatever, we like John so what are we supposed to do here? Giants head coach Ben McAdoo illegally using a communication device on the sideline of a nationally televised game? Eh -- slide their fourth-round pick down 10 spots. Honestly, nobody will care.
Where Goodell has come down with unprecedented levels of punishment to numerous players, coaches, and owners over the course of his 13-year run as commissioner of the NFL, he has always placed a soft cushion underneath his friends with the Giants, an effort to soften their landing instead of attempting to shatter them into pieces.
Now it's Eli's turn to benefit from that association.
Oh, and lest there be any confusion, if Eli were guilty of the accusations levied against him, the NFL has specific language in its personal conduct policy that would put the quarterback firmly under the thumb of Goodell's punishment bureau.
Here's a quick excerpt from that policy: "Players convicted of a crime or subject to a disposition of a criminal proceeding (as defined in this Policy) are subject to discipline. But even if the conduct does not result in a criminal conviction, players found to have engaged in any of the following conduct will be subject to discipline."
The list that follows includes, in plain English, this: "Crimes of dishonesty such as blackmail, extortion, fraud, money laundering, or racketeering."
That's a lot more black-and-white than anything about general awareness of events that are more probable than not to have happened. Yet with Eli, the league has shown no interest in even sniffing around in the matter.
Must be nice.
None of it looks very good for Goodell, who uttered these stern words in October of 2015:
Our rules apply to everybody. They apply to every single player. And every single player expects those rules to apply to everybody. Every coach does, every fan does, every partner, every team does. Our rules and the integrity of the game aren't different because somebody is popular or somebody is a Super Bowl champ or not. They are to be applied evenly. Our teams expect that and that's our job, that's our responsibility. It's my job. So no, I don't regret that and we will continue to uphold the integrity of the game and we will do that as vehemently as we can.
Ultimately, if anyone around the league is paying attention, the matter should work to undo any progress Goodell might have made in presenting himself as someone who will go after any player for any offense without regard to that player's standing in the league, without regard to that player's personal accomplishments, and without regard to that player's place of employment. Goodell worked hard to purport himself as someone capable and even eager to "evenly" apply the NFL's rules. If Goodell did make any progress in that quest, it all goes down the toilet with something like this.
That is, of course, only if people are paying close attention. And, well, even if they are, there's not a whole lot they can do (short of signing with the New York Giants or changing their last name to Manning) if they hope to one day receive such preferential treatment from the league. Really, it would take a criminal act caught on tape for the league to actually pursue discipline against its Walter Payton Co-Man Of The Year. (Though even with video evidence, the NFL's record can be a bit dodgy.)
As has been the case for years, all NFL players should basically just hope that they don't end up being the ones for whom Goodell comes with a fiery vengeance. When he punishes, he punishes with great force.
Only the lucky few are let off the hook completely. Eli can now swap stories with his big bro about what that's like.
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