If Roger Goodell ever wants to be taken seriously on discipline again -- and you can rest fully assured that he does -- he's going to have to find a way to discipline one of his bosses.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, one of the 32 people at whose pleasure Goodell serves as NFL commissioner, was in jail Monday morning on charges of driving while intoxicated and possession of a controlled substance. Bad look for the NFL no matter how you slice it, but if Irsay is guilty, all eyes are going to be on Goodell and the way the league handles the matter.
If guilty, Irsay must absolutely be punished in some significant and public way that makes it clear the league holds its owners to a standard at least as high as that to which it holds its players.
Drunken driving is, among other things, the scourge of the NFL offseason. The crime and its proliferation contribute to a public image of NFL players as dumb, entitled, out-of-control punks. Eyes get rolled. We grow numb to a repetitive news cycle, incapable of surprise. A public already conditioned to view NFL players as disposable throws them all into the same bucket of irresponsibility based on the behavior of a few knuckleheads. Goodell can't unilaterally decide the severity of the discipline imposed on players for DWI -- that's already spelled out under the substance abuse policy per the CBA. But official punishments are handed out.
So what does he do with the owner who stands accused of the same crime? It's got to be something. The NFL and its fans can't hold the players to one standard and the owners to another. If anything, the owners are supposed to be the grown-ups, right? The responsible ones. The ones concerned with the image the league presents, who empower Goodell to dole out discipline under the personal conduct policy to keep that image clean. If Irsay was driving drunk, Goodell needs to make it unmistakably clear that the league won't stand for that.
This should be an easy stand to take. Drunken driving is as selfish and avoidable a crime as there is. Jim Irsay is worth an estimated $1.6 billion. He can afford a driver as easily as you or I can afford a tissue. If I had Irsay's money, I can't see a reason why I'd ever drive myself anywhere sober, let alone drunk. It's preposterous that a mug shot of a person in Irsay's position exists. It's evidence of irresponsibility of the highest order, and it needs to be treated very seriously by a league and a commissioner who take such pride in their ability to police themselves and their product.
Drunken driving is a killer crime that our society too often overlooks as the extension of a common vice. Thousands will have read Irsay's story in the morning and then, by midnight, be turning the keys in their ignition when they should instead be calling a cab. It's a crime, but it's one with which far too many people assume, every single night, they can get away. By punishing Irsay publicly and severely, the NFL wouldn't just be acting in the best interest of its own image; it would be setting an example for the millions who devour its product every day. If one person sees that someone as wealthy and powerful as Irsay got punished for this and for that reason decides not to do it, then it would be worth the time, effort and discomfort it will surely cause Goodell and Irsay's fellow owners.
Irsay has admitted in the past to issues with substance abuse, and it's possible he needs help. If that's the case, he should and likely will get that help. That's not the issue here. What Irsay stands accused of Monday morning is a crime and should be treated as such by anyone in position to dole out discipline for it. If Irsay is guilty, Goodell must find some way of punishing him and making it obviously hurt.
It's not going to be easy. A suspension? Tough to enforce. A fine? How much can you fine a billionaire and really make it sting? A forfeited draft pick? Well, that'd get some people's attention, now wouldn't it?
"We are simply confirming that, yes, he is subject to discipline," a league spokesman told ESPN.com columnist Ashley Fox on Monday morning.
The personal conduct policy and player discipline are hallmarks of Goodell's commissionership -- critical elements to the swaggering-sheriff persona that has made him millions and earned him regal status in the eyes of the NFL's swooning public. If Irsay is guilty of the crime of which he stands accused, Goodell is going to have to find a way to apply that policy to an NFL owner. And whatever discipline that is, it's going to have to be a good one.