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Erie Times-News, Pa., John Dudley column

By John Dudley, Erie Times-News, Pa.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 31--NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's tougher stance this week on violent behavior is viewed by some as too little, too late.

That's fair, considering Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice received a lighter suspension -- two games -- for allegedly knocking his then-fiancee unconscious than some players, including the Browns'Josh Gordon, have gotten for repeat drug violations.

Up until now, though, that argument had only a moral basis, not a procedural one, since the NFL and its players association specifically negotiated the protocol for punishing banned substance use, while offenses like domestic violence fell into a gray area outside collective bargaining.

What Goodell did this week was right a wrong and admit a mistake in the way he handled Rice's suspension. For a man with a pretty big ego, that's something.

Violent offenders will now receive an automatic six-game suspension for a first offense and banishment for a second. It's a tough policy. It's overdue.

But it's important to remember why Goodell found himself in the awkward position of defending himself against women's advocacy groups in the first place after meting out what was, in their view, a comparatively light punishment to a violent offender while coming down hard on a habitual pothead.

As much as the NFL wants its players and coaches to be decent human beings for their own good -- it does, right? -- it needs them to stay on the right side of the law to protect its bottom line.

Yes, pro football is by now an American institution so ingrained into the Sunday afternoon (and Monday and Thursday night) routines of millions of viewers that they plan entire weeks around viewing or attending games.

But it's also a business whose lifeblood is those fans and, to an increasing extent, its corporate sponsors.

And, as we all know thanks to Tiger Woods and others who have stepped outside social (and legal) boundaries, corporate America hates bad P.R.

The NFL's deal with Microsoft Corp. alone reportedly is worth $400 million, according to the industry marketing publication IEG Sponsorship Report. IEG also lists companies like Ford, Gatorade, Comcast, Toyota, Verizon and multiple insurance companies among the league's top advertisers.

These aren't gritty, cutting-edge startups looking to carve a niche in a bad-boy market. They're among the most mainstream, most recognizable names in business today, and they don't want habitual drug users and thugs acting as de facto pitchmen.

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Until now, though, the NFL's implied approach -- based on its insistence on including strict banned substance language in the latest CBA but nothing similarly defined to address violent crimes -- was that it's riskier to employ stoners than spouse abusers.

We know that neither Goodell nor anyone else in the NFL offices actually believes that, but that's the message its millions of fans received when holding the Rice and Gordon punishments side by side.

Not anymore, thankfully.

If his tenure ended tomorrow, Goodell would go down as one of the most progressive -- and most polarizing -- commissioners in major professional sports history. (He has, after all, changed hitting in football forever, like it or not.)

To his credit, he fixed a problem this week, and regardless of how you feel about that within the context of his overall body of work, it deserves our applause.

JOHN DUDLEY can be reached at 870-1677 or john.dudley@timesnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNdudley.

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(c)2014 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.)

Visit the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.) at www.GoErie.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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