Over the weekend, the NFL announced that the Kansas City Chiefs have been penalized violating the NFL’s Anti-Tampering Policy. In 2015, the Chiefs allegedly had improper “direct communication” with unrestricted free agent WR Jeremy Maclin during the “Negotiation Period.” During this period, teams are only allowed contact with agents and not players; hence it was technically a violation of the Policy (although it is widely speculated that this type of contact happens all of the time during the NFL’s “legal tampering” period).
Pending appeal, Kansas City will be forced to forfeit its third round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft and its sixth-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and pay a fine of $250,000. Head Coach Andy Reid was also fined $75,000 and General Manager John Dorsey $25,000.
Did Goodell and the NFL overstep its bound in this case? The Chiefs seem to think so. Owner Clark Hunt released the following statement:
“While we respect Commissioner Goodell and the process, we believe that the penalties proposed in this case are inconsistent with discipline enforced in similar matters — particularly given the league’s inconsistent communication of its policies on contact with potential free agents. As an organization, we take great care to conduct ourselves with integrity and operate within the guidelines of the NFL. We have been fully cooperative and transparent with the league in this matter, and we are disappointed with the league’s decision. I want to make it clear that I fully support the leadership of both Coach Reid and John Dorsey. We will continue to explore our options under the appeal process.”
Notably, Hunt does not seem to deny that wrongdoing occurred; rather, he argues that the punishment does not fit the crime.
The question of whether the Chiefs will be able to successfully appeal the penalty revolves around the language of the underlying policy and past case precedent. Like many other League polices, the Anti-Tampering Policy gives Roger Goodell wide discretion to levy penalties. Here is all is says about “Discipline”:
Any violation of this Anti-Tampering Policy will subject the involved club and/or person to severe discipline action by the Commissioner.
Since the Policy itself does not delineate specific penalties for specific infractions, past applications of the policy will guide the inquiry into whether the penalty fit the crime. Here are the three instances that the NFL investigated alleged tampering of free agents:
- In 2008, the San Francisco 49ers were docked a fifth-round pick and were required to flip third round picks for contacting the agent of Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs during the season.
- In 2011, the Detroit Lions were originally docked a 2011 seventh-round draft pick and required to swap fifth round picks with the Kansas City Chiefs after the NFL found that the Lions had “impermissible contact” and commented publically to the media about Kansas City Chiefs players still under contract. After an appeal, the penalty was slightly modified and the Lions were returned their 2011 seventh-round pick but forced to give up a 2012 sixth or seventh-round pick depending on if they made the playoffs (they lost in the wildcard round of the playoffs that year and had to give up the 2012 sixth round pick).
- In 2015, the New York Jets were fined $100,000 for owner Woody Johnson’s public comments that he would “love to have Darrelle [Revis] back” while Revis was under contract with the New England Patriots. After Revis eventually signed with the Jets, they turned the tables and filed a grievance against the Patriots after Pats owner Robert Kraft said that he wished Revis “was still with us,” but New England was not punished.
Here is what stands out from the past precedent: (1) The highest draft pick a team has ever been penalized is a fifth-pick and (2) no team has ever been forced to forfeit multiple draft picks.
Applying this to the Chiefs penalty, the forfeiture of the 2016 third-round pick is the highest draft pick penalty by two rounds. Also, this is the first time that a team has been forced to give up multiple picks. While we do not know the full extent of the details in this case, it seems that the Briggs case – reaching out to an agent during the season – is more egregious than this case – contacting the player directly during the negotiation period rather than speaking with the agent.
Given that this is an unprecedented penalty and that the conduct does not appear to be as severe as past cases resulting in a lesser penalty, the Chiefs will have a very strong argument on appeal for a reduced penalty (remember, they are not denying wrongdoing). Expect the appeal to be wrapped up quickly and in advance of the April 28-30 2016 Draft.