How independent is the NFL’s new Disciplinary Officer?

In 2020, the NFL and NFL Players Association changed the process under the Personal Conduct Policy for determining the punishment imposed on a player who allegedly has violated its terms. Here’s what didn’t change — the Commissioner still has final say over whatever is done, as long as the new Disciplinary Officer imposes any discipline at all on the player.

The new procedure will play out for the first time this week, with the NFL (ultimately led by the Commissioner) proposing a punishment of Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson. The Disciplinary Officer, jointly hired and paid by the league and the union, will preside over the hearing and make a decision. And if any discipline is imposed, the Commissioner will then have the power to impose the discipline that the NFL (ultimately led by the Commissioner) wanted in the first place.

The league curiously hasn’t announced the discipline it seeks, opting for a Saturday night leak instead. Thus, it won’t be quite as obvious if, for example, the league asks for an indefinite suspension of at least a year, the Disciplinary Office imposes, for example, an eight-game suspension, and the Commissioner adopts on appeal the proposal that his employees made in the first place.

Although the efforts of the Disciplinary Officer, as long as any discipline is imposed, can be disregarded by the Commissioner, the Disciplinary Officer has considerable power through the process itself. The NFLPA, as PFT reported 11 days ago, will argue that any discipline imposed on Watson must be proportional to the discipline, if any, imposed on three specific owners who either weren’t punished enough or weren’t punished at all for potential violations of the Personal Conduct Policy. The NFL will strenuously object to any such argument.

What will the Disciplinary Officer, retired federal judge Sue L. Robinson do? That will be the first indication as to whether she’s truly independent and/or whether she’ll exercise such independence.

She’s not truly independent. As usual, the real truth lurks in the fine print of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Here’s the key language from Article 46, Section 1(e)(i) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement: “Unless the parties mutually determine otherwise, the Disciplinary Officer shall serve a minimum two-year term. Thereafter, the Disciplinary Officer may be discharged by either party at any time upon 120 days’ written notice.”

It’s entirely possible, given that more than two years have passed since the implementation of the new procedure, that Judge Robinson already is subject to discharge by either party with 120 days’ notice. If she compels the NFL to produce information regarding investigations conducted regarding or discipline imposed on Commanders owner Daniel Snyder, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and/or Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, that could be enough to get the NFL to exercise its unilateral right to fire her.

So what will she do? Will she force the league to give meaning to language in the policy that proclaims owners are held to a higher standard than players? Or will she conclude that it’s irrelevant because owners aren’t part of the bargaining unit? Her decision could go a long way toward determining whether her first case in his new role is also her last one.