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Bernstein: Goodell's PR Move Also Better Policy

By Dan Bernstein- senior columnist

(CBS) Roger Goodell cares about women. Or he cares enough about one woman, at least.

Her name is Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), and she was one of three U.S. senators to sign a letter to Goodell expressing dismay in the wake of the two-game suspension he handed Ray Rice after the Ravens' running back knocked his fiancée unconscious and dragged her out of a casino elevator.

Baldwin, along with Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), wrote that the punishment "reflects a disturbingly lenient, even cavalier attitude towards violence against women," and noted that "21 of 32 NFL teams last year employed a player with a domestic violence or sexual assault charge on his record."

On Thursday, Goodell broke recent character, both in responding at all to widespread public outcry and personally owning up to a major mistake in how the Rice situation was handled. In a lengthy letter to NFL teams outlining broad, still-nebulous policies on off-field violence, Goodell admitted, "I didn't get it right."

Better to write that in a note than be pressured into saying it in front of a congressional committee after rounds of tough questions as part of the public record. The last thing he'd want is for the discussion to veer into other territory, like the NFL's status as a tax-exempt 501(c)6 not-for-profit corporation despite making $10 billion dollars per year or the vital anti-trust exemption they enjoy that allows for negotiation of the national television contracts that are the heart of the business.

So he's smart to try to get out ahead of this.

Also savvy was his understanding that the media would run with the domestic violence angle despite the new rules covering any and all violent acts by any NFL employee. Per the memo, "Violations of the Personal Conduct Policy regarding assault, battery, domestic violence and sexual assault that involve physical force will be subject to enhanced discipline." Offenses against women were the lead story, but they were far from the whole of this change.

Critics point out properly that this could all be interpreted as mere grandstanding, because the commissioner already owns sweeping powers that can be applied unilaterally as he sees fit, pursuant to personal conduct rules currently on the books. But one expert explained why the upgraded punishments – a six-game suspension for a first offense and banishment for the second, with details on what constitutes an "offense" to be filled in later – are indeed significant.

"He did jump to a pretty stringent policy, if we take him at his word," WSCR legal analyst Eldon Ham said Thursday on the Boers and Bernstein Show.

Ham is a Chicago-based lawyer, law professor and author specializing in sports-related issues. He notably took on the NFL in court in 1988, when his successful representation of Richard Dent made him the first attorney to challenge, overturn and alter NFL drug-testing policy. He believes that Goodell is strengthening his position to police the league.

"There are a lot of cases about limitations on commissioner authority," Ham said. "The commissioner has a lot of authority, but one of the things he has to do is at least follow his own rules. You get into things like 'arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable.' That's where a lot of these things go. The commissioner is dealing with that by pre-announcing the level of penalties he's going to likely issue."

Ham describes this as an inoculation against such counter-argument made by a punished player, with even a loosely defined set of rules, including what's key -- a stated number of games as a benchmark.

"He's trying to provide some definition to ward off a series of complaints when he goes to implement this stuff," Ham said. "At least the commissioner is making an effort by issuing this letter, odd as it may seem. It's telegraphing to the players what they can expect."

So while Goodell is making a clear public relations move with this very public display of renewed commitment, working to clean up the image of his league and dodge pressure from curious lawmakers, he also made some degree of tangible, meaningful progress. Due to the apparent rush to strengthen the NFL's stance against domestic violence after the Rice fiasco, there are now tougher penalties for all kinds of off-field incidents that are more likely to be enforced even after appeals or legal challenges. That's good, despite the obvious theater of Goodell's mea culpa and all the self-congratulatory subtext.

The NFL's real concern for women still extends primarily to any dollars that they may spend to consume their product, but even that motivation can still result in better plans.

Follow Dan on Twitter @dan_bernstein and read more of his columns here.

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