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Accuse. Leak. Investigate. Mull. Leak. Discipline. Appeal. File lawsuit. Investigate the investigation. Negotiate. Exhaust all legal options. Settle. Rinse. Repeat.
That about covers the steps in the NFL's unwieldy and wholly inefficient method for dealing with the internal conflicts that all businesses experience. As much as we would love to bid farewell to Deflategate, a dubious scandal whose primary victims are the perpetrators, we should know by now that we've simply reached one of many mile markers in this episode. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady already has announced he will appeal a four-game suspension, and a blistering statement from Patriots owner Robert Kraft left open the possibility of an unexpected and perhaps unprecedented action by a franchise against the league.
And in the absence of a successful appeal, Brady figures to follow in the footsteps of fellow players and union members Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice, who over the past year sought aid from a federal court and a former judge, respectively, to facilitate reinstatements from suspension. Brady's agent, Don Yee, said in part: "The NFL has a well-documented history of making poor disciplinary decisions that often are overturned when truly independent and neutral judges or arbitrators preside...."
That history includes not only Peterson and Rice but also the 2012 investigation into an alleged bounty program run by the New Orleans Saints and even the 2010 suspension of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. If anything, the league's disciplinary approach can be interpreted as a bargaining tool: Start high, appear tough, fight hard and accept less in the end.
There will always be exceptions and unique circumstances, but as a matter of course, this can't be a healthy method for a business to resolve its problems. Why must everything be a battle drawn out to its most distant endgame? In business, the courtroom is a familiar place for resolving disputes -- but between corporations and outside entities rather than warring internal divisions.
In truth, this pattern reveals the NFL as a collection of 32 individual companies as much as the one-for-all conceit that helped build it into the most powerful sports league in the country. Reasonable people can debate the seriousness of the crime and the merits of the discipline in this case, but when you take a step back, it's jarring to see how quickly internal disputes have ballooned into unsavory scandals in recent years.
U.S. history is marred by legal conflicts between companies and unions, but the NFL's poor relationship with the NFL Players Association is only part of what has happened here.
It's true that Brady, Peterson and Rice have been subject to disciplinary policies that were not all collectively bargained, that are vague on expected punishments, and that do not always have an independent arbitration option. But remember, the NFL's bounty investigation into the Saints began when the Minnesota Vikings complained to commissioner Roger Goodell. Concerns about the Patriots' ball inflation were first brought forth by the Indianapolis Colts. In those issues and others, the league office has failed in one of its basic charges: to keep the peace among its 32 teams in a fair way that proactively maximizes the good of the league.
These episodes are not going to bring down the league on their own, and indeed, a true cynic could note they have held the nation's offseason attention in a way that no free-agent signing period or minicamp ever could. But it seems appropriate to conclude here with an amalgam of several conversations I've had recently with team executives about the NFL's current path.
All the execs appeared to be worn down not only by the attention on crime and cheating, but also by the league's uneven approach in dealing with these issues. The buildup of negativity is not what anyone wants to sell, and at some point, if not already, fans and clients will begin to view the league through the prism of off-field soap operas as much as its games and competition.
Next up: One of the best quarterbacks in NFL history will run the legal gauntlet while one of the league's most powerful owners mulls devastating power-play options that would in effect declare a corporate civil war.
Of course, it's much easier to identify these problems than to offer solutions. And we shouldn't be so naive to assume that these disputes would melt away under different circumstances. Sometimes the kids misbehave. Conflict is a part of life. But so is conflict resolution, something the NFL has lost total control of. It shouldn't be this hard.