I took a Daily Show-like end-of-year hiatus, but have returned to let you know what’s really grinding my gears with the new year afoot. It’s not the Republican House or the trash piling up on the streets. Instead, it’s the NFL.
If you recall, just before Thanksgiving, I engaged in a lengthy analysis of the harassment allegations against QB Brett Favre dating back to his season with the New York Jets in 2008. I favored Jenn Sterger, then in-house sideline reporter for the Jets, for a number of reasons, one of which was we happened to meet once, and I came away thinking she was “smart, kind, and principled.” No legal case was brought at the time. Rather, all parties relied on the NFL, which conducted its own investigation… and dragged its feet so hard they resembled a wide receiver trying to make sure both his were in-bounds for a touchdown.
Nearly three months passed since Deadspin broke the story using questionable practices. Favre’s seemingly-genuine retirement loomed. Injury caused his streak of consecutive starts to snap. His current team, the Minnesota Vikings, whimpered into a playoff-less postseason. The two-year statute of limitations in New Jersey to bring a workplace sexual harassment claim appeared to expire.
And then, buried just before New Year’s Eve, the NFL finally issued a decision: a supremely underwhelming and perplexing ruling.
It didn’t favor Sterger. It didn’t find that Favre engaged in inappropriate behavior that constituted a breach of the league’s personal conduct policy. Nor did it fully exonerate the curmudgeonly quarterback: Favre was fined $50,000 by commissioner Roger Goodell for failing to fully cooperate in the league’s investigation. It enables him to more-or-less save face and run out the play clock. (Aside: Only The New York Times could call this an “ignominious coda” to Favre’s career. Preach, Gray Lady, preach.)
The NFL’s reaction represents a dereliction of duty, reinforcement of bad behavior, reward for stonewalling, and a triumph of male athlete chauvinism.
We may need to use the closet and the dresser, because there’s a lot to unpack here.
Let’s start with Goodell and his treatment of Favre: is there any lens through which this doesn’t look like a superstar getting preferential treatment? His actions were offensive, distasteful, immoral, and repeated. This penalty is “less than some of the fines the NFL has handed out in its crackdown this season against helmet-to-helmet hits.” A day after the Favre fine, the Jets were fined $100,000 because one of their coaches tripped a player from the other team in-game. That action was wrong, isolated, and easily provable. It was a stupid regrettable move done on a whim. Yet sending a non-BP junk shot to someone who is, for all intents and purposes, your subordinate gets you half that?
Favre made “$16 million this year, or $1 million per game. A game is 60 minutes, meaning he gets nearly $17,000 a minute. In other words, he was fined for three minutes of work on a game clock.” For him, $50,000 is like a buying a beer.
Clearly, Team Sterger is not satisfied with this outcome, nor should they be. Jenn’s dad is rarin’ to sack Favre, which is kind of awesome in its own right. I also like how Sterger truth-to-powered Goodell directly in their final meeting on December 16.
Sterger’s lawyer, Joseph Conway, has been shaming the NFL one sound bite at a time:
“There was ample evidence that pointed to his being the author and sender of those photographs. I’m a former federal prosecutor, and I know what kind of evidence is needed. I think that standard was met, but the NFL claims there was insufficient evidence. It’s beyond me how they could come to such a conclusion.”
“Mr. Goodell completely failed to address the complicity of the New York Jet organization in Favre’s conduct. The evidence was explicit that Ms. Sterger’s personal telephone numbers were provided to Favre by still-current employees of the New York Jets. This was done without Ms. Sterger’s knowledge and consent.”
To Conway’s credit here, the ruling didn’t address the murky circumstances under which Favre got Sterger’s phone number, purportedly from Jets employee Aaron Degerness. And the Jets have been quieter than Shy Ronnie throughout this ordeal. Their only comment on the outcome was via statement: “The NFL has concluded its investigation. We consider this matter closed.” I’m glad you got into the playoffs Gang Green, but can you rustle up a few more consonants and a vowel on this topic?
Beyond the Jets, Deadspin, in mischievously exposing the details, remains an unaddressed culprit here. It’s no muckraker.
“Today’s decision is an affront to all females and shows once again that, despite tough talk, the NFL remains the good old boys’ league.”
Oh snap, league! Those pink breast cancer cleats ain’t foolin’ nobody!
Finally, Conway corroborated my prediction about why Jenn waited so long to come forward and why she held off on suing for damages: “Sterger did not initially report Favre’s contact with her in 2008 because… she was advised by colleagues in the sports industry that such a complaint could damage her career.” Conway concluded by saying:
“This wasn’t about money. This is not anything she sought out. She didn’t come forward in ’08. She did not want to come forward in 2010. She was forced to do so. This has taken a toll on her. She has lost some employment opportunities. She has been dragged through the mud. It has taken a toll on her, emotionally and financially. She is certainly angry at the way this whole thing has come down.”
In any other job, you’d likely be fired for deception or refusal to cooperate with a workplace harassment investigation. In the NFL, you’re told to dress for Sunday.
ESPN’s Jemele Hill said the ruling amounted to “a very fancy way of saying that Favre lied, but we can’t absolutely prove it.”
The review did not find any “evidence to contradict the statements of both Favre and Sterger that they never met in person, nor was there anything to suggest that Sterger engaged in any inappropriate conduct.”
And yet, it’s odd that after Favre admitted he had left the solicitous voicemails, the league could not verify conclusively, in either direction, whether the graphic cell phone pictures came from the same number. Since electronic devices tend to leave records and stuff.
Still, there is not unanimous outrage. On the new ESPNW site, Sarah Spain expressed some skepticism in saying, “I just don’t see how Favre could ask her out, get denied and decide the next logical step would be to text her the contents of his Wranglers.” Or perhaps he’s just that big of a dumb jock?
To depict the inconsistent application of rules, Business Insider points to two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s substantial suspension last year on sexual assault accusations. “Prosecutors declined to press criminal charges against Roethlisberger. Nevertheless, Goodell insisted he had the right to act on mere allegations of impropriety: ‘[Y]ou are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct … that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans.’ ”
BI further opines that “Ultimately, the NFL’s disciplinary system under Roger Goodell is an instrument of public relations, not a mechanism for righting wrongs or promoting a particular sense of right-and-wrong. Jenn Sterger and her representatives failed to understand this.” I suppose if they had, they could have foregone the league altogether for the courts. In addition, BI think if Sports Illustrated had broken the news (ethically) as opposed to Deadspin tabloiding it, then the league would have had to be harsher. Maybe. Then again, BI also suggests this is all inside baseball, or football as it were, on Goodell’s part to weaken the players standing as it relates to the looming collective bargaining agreement. That’s a stretch.
While Sterger contemplates her legal options, someone else lawyered up. This week comes a sleeper suit (not to be confused with the Barney Stinson variety) from two Jets’ massage therapists who had also reportedly complained about offensive come-ons by Favre, but kept a low profile during the Sterger investigation. There’s immoral and there’s illegal. This might be both, as the women claim they were fired as Jets contractors for complaining.
This suit could add a layer of peer review, if you will, to the Sterger proceedings. Unfortunately, those two women recruited Gloria Allred, which will make the coverage effortlessly grating.
Nonetheless, the freelance masseuses have some cover. Favre’s douchebaggery was exposed and publicized, but not at their behest. (Once again, “thanks,” Deadspin.) After the NFL balked at any meaningful discipline, they decided to move forward.
As CBS News Legal Analyst Jack Ford said, “It has to be more than boorish conduct, otherwise every guy with a bad pickup line in a bar is going to get sued here… It has to be conduct that offends the reasonable sensibilities of some person. So the question is, if they continue, are they going to try to weave Jenn Sterger’s claims in some fashion to illustrate what they say was Brett Favre’s bad behavior?”
We’ll see, but it seems like going to the courts is a smart move for them since the NFL wouldn’t even look at their texts from Favre.
The Favre debacle is the latest example of how poorly most major sports are run. The NBA is the best-managed organization in professional sports. The commissioner’s office is efficient, deliberate, and articulate. As I referenced in advocating fines for Congressional ethics violations, if you screw up in the NBA, you get hit with a fine the next business day. That’s been the case for 15 or 20 years now.
Other organizations leave something to be desired. The MLB is almost geologically slow. In administrating the World Cup, FIFA is so corrupt it resembles Afghanistan. The NCAA institutionalizes nonsensical competition (the BCS) because it’s run by, or at the mercy of, a bunch of provincial cartels that makes up conferences who refuse to re-align or amend anything logically so as not to lose control of their absurd revenue streams. The NHL is actually alright, but it’s low popularity affords it little room for idiocy, if you don’t count hockey fights.
And then of course there is the NFL, administrated by a bunch of backwards good ‘ol boys, so intent on maintaining their slot as America’s most popular sport that they won’t make basic infrastructual changes that would bring their ethical and safety standards into line with America, circa 1987.
So then, what to do now?
If you’re an NFL star, keep on keepin’ on, and use Brett Favre’s reaction as a schematic for evasion and stonewalling of the league’s authority.
If you’re a female NFL employee and a player acts inappropriate towards you, make sure you have at least five security cameras and four witnesses.
If you’re Jenn Sterger, in order to get your point across, maybe now is the time to sit down with Meredith Vieira on Today. And, perhaps have your lawyer release more materials to the public.
If you’re Barack Obama (didn’t think I’d be able to get him into this piece did you?), and you already made a bizarre call to the Eagles to praise Michael Vick, maybe you can buzz Goodell and chew him out over Favre, too?