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Off-field issues continue to dog NFL, Roger Goodell

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speaks during a news

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speaks during a news conference before Super Bowl 50 at the Moscone Center West on February 5, 2016 in San Francisco. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Mike Lawrie

Just when it appeared the NFL was settling down into the business of what it’s supposed to be about — actual football — two more reminders of the league’s thorny and complicated off-field issues surfaced last week to create more controversy.

First came the league’s threat of suspension for four players who have failed to cooperate with the NFL’s investigation into an Al Jazeera report last December that implicated the players in connection with the alleged distribution of performance-enhancing drugs.

Then the ugly specter of domestic violence surfaced again, as the NFL announced that Giants kicker Josh Brown had been suspended for one game because of an incident with his then-wife in May 2015.

If you thought the news cycle would focus almost exclusively on the game itself, especially now that the Deflategate saga finally has ended, forget it.

Brown’s case raised another troubling specter of the domestic-violence issue and pointed to the complexity of the problem. He was arrested on May 22, 2015, after police determined that he had grabbed his then-wife’s wrist and caused an abrasion and some bruising during an argument. The case was dismissed five days later by King County (Washington) prosecutor Raam Wong, according to records obtained from the King County District Court.

According to the arrest report, Molly Brown said Brown had exhibited 20 instances of abusive or threatening behavior. According to records obtained through the King County Sheriff Department, Molly Brown detailed past incidents to police, which included Brown holding up his fist and saying “I want to knock you out so bad” and, on another occasion, kicking in a bathroom door in their home and injuring Molly’s teenage son, Brown’s stepson. She told police she had an order of protection against Brown in 2013 that she dropped because of progress in their marriage through counseling.

While the case was dismissed on May 27, five days after the incident, Molly Brown was interviewed on May 28 by deputy prosecuting attorney Rich Anderson, detective Robin Ostrum and advocate Sarah Brumley, according to court documents obtained by Newsday. In the interview, which lasted more than two hours and was typewritten in a 58-page document, she detailed many of the events referred to in the arrest report.

A King County clerk who referred to herself as Sierra (she said last names of the clerks are not given) explained that interviews that occur after a prosecutor has decided not to proceed with the case are typical.

“It looks like [the prosecutor] didn’t have enough information to determine probable cause,” she said. “It’s possible they were trying to gather more information to say there was probable cause to file more charges.”

However, no additional charges were filed after the interview. Near the end of the interview, Molly Brown indicated that at one point during the police investigation on May 22, she didn’t want her husband arrested.

“When the police officer came in and asked what happened, I told them what happened and then [an officer said], ‘Well, let me see your wrists.’ And I’m like, ‘It’s nothing. Like it’s just a little red, whatever.’ And he like flipped my wrist over and there must have been like a little scratch thing and it was red and swollen . . . The next thing I knew, Josh was being arrested and I looked at the police officer and I was like, ‘I don’t want you to arrest him’ and he like very firmly — to me it felt like yelling — said, ‘Ma’am, this is not your decision!’ You know, I just felt horrible.”

In a statement issued Friday, the NFL said it was aware of the police report but added that league investigators said she repeatedly declined to be interviewed.

“We understand that there are many reasons that might have affected her decision not to speak with us, but we were limited in our ability to investigate these allegations,” the NFL said.

The NFL also said that during its 10-month investigation, it made “numerous requests — as late as this spring — to local law enforcement officers for information on the case and previous allegations. They declined those requests for information.”

This is a complicated situation, and the controversy that has developed might be more than the Giants had expected. This is not the type of organization that would risk its widely acclaimed reputation on a 37-year-old kicker, and Brown’s continued presence on the team could create enough of a distraction to prompt the team to decide to move on from him and eliminate the controversy.

But at the very least, an explanation of the Giants’ thinking is in order. That didn’t come after Saturday’s preseason game against the Bills, as team owner John Mara and general manager Jerry Reese declined to comment on the situation. Without further clarity on Brown’s situation, the risk of continued controversy, especially concerning a highly sensitive topic that the league was so clumsy and late in addressing two years ago, could reach the point of diminishing returns.

Commissioner Roger Goodell and his associates in the league office surely wrestled with their decision to suspend Brown for only one game. They had to know the intense scrutiny that would ensue because of what appeared to be a light punishment, given Molly Brown’s claims of repeated abuse and Josh Brown’s contention that the suspension arose from “just a moment” 15 months ago.

The fallout won’t end anytime soon.

In the issue stemming from the Al Jazeera report, Goodell’s heavy-handed disciplinary measures again have become a story, with the players implicated in the report initially refusing to meet with league investigators to answer questions. This despite the fact that the now-defunct television network relied heavily on information supplied by Charlie Sly, a former unpaid intern at the Guyer Institute of Molecular Medicine in Indianapolis (which treated former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning). Sly had recanted his statements even before the report aired.

In addition to Manning, Sly implicated Clay Matthews III, Julius Peppers and Mike Neal of the Packers and James Harrison of the Steelers as well as Ryan Howard of the Phillies and Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals. Major League Baseball investigated and said Friday that it had cleared Howard and Zimmerman. MLB “did not find any violations of the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program by either Howard or Zimmerman,” according to a statement.

Matthews, Peppers and Harrison took an important step forward in their bid to clear their names by agreeing to meet with investigators. Neal, an unsigned free agent, has not indicated a willingness to be interviewed. If the NFL is satisfied with its investigation, the league is expected to clear the players quickly. None of the players is believed to have failed a league-administered test for PEDs, and all have denied representations made by Sly about their alleged use of substances prohibited by the league.

The players’ months-long unwillingness to meet with the NFL is understandable, especially in light of the league’s previous attempts to investigate other high-profile episodes. While the NFL did find evidence that the Saints ran an illegal bounty program from 2009-11 that was designed to reward defensive players for injuring opponents, many of the suspensions imposed by Goodell were overturned by former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was appointed by Goodell to hear the players’ appeals.

Some players and coaches investigated in the bullying scandal with the Dolphins in 2013 thought NFL-appointed investigator Ted Wells unfairly represented what had happened. And after a months-long investigation by Wells of the Patriots’ alleged use of purposely deflated footballs in the AFC Championship Game in January 2015, Tom Brady was suspended four games for being “generally aware” of the scheme. Brady had the suspension overturned in federal district court, but the sanction was reinstated after the NFL appealed the case.

With player discipline remaining a central focus of the players, who would like Goodell to cede some of his power and not serve as what they commonly refer to as the judge, jury and executioner, there is no immediate resolution on the horizon. The decision not to cooperate until now with the allegations raised in the Al Jazeera report is the latest example that labor peace remains out of reach.

In addition, Brown’s case reignited images of some of the league’s darkest days in 2014, when a series of high-profile domestic-violence cases involving former Ravens running back Ray Rice, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and former Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy brought scorn upon the NFL in general and Goodell in particular.

His decision to suspend Rice for only two games for knocking out then-fiancee Janay Palmer in the elevator of an Atlantic City hotel in February was widely — and deservedly — criticized. Rice then was suspended indefinitely and released by the Ravens when video of the incident was made public in September. Peterson missed nearly the entire season after being charged with disciplining his young son with a small tree branch, and Hardy was deactivated by the Panthers after being found guilty by a judge of assaulting his then-girlfriend.

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