Sports attorney David Cornwell is challenging the NFL's right to discipline players by proposing to appoint an independent arbitrator to review -- and have the power to change -- rulings made by the commissioner.
Cornwell, one of four finalists in the running to replace the late Gene Upshaw as the NFL Players Association's executive director, described the league's current disciplinary policy as being "draconian" and requiring independent oversight.
"The notion that public relations drives or justifies draconian and unfair disciplinary actions is simply misplaced and we will no longer accept it," Cornwell told The Associated Press. "We have the legal right to negotiate these policies ... and we are going to exercise that right to get independent review of the commissioner's decisions."
Cornwell is closely tied to the issue of discipline after he successfully argued last season to have a federal judge block the NFL suspension of five players for violating the league's anti-doping policy. He argued that the suspensions were wrong because the NFL knew about the banned ingredient contained in the dietary supplement StarCaps but failed to share that information with players.
The league has appealed the ruling.
Currently, NFL suspensions are determined by commissioner Roger Goodell. Aside from filing grievances with the NFL, the union's sole other option is going to court. Cornwell is proposing an appeals process that is similar to that of Major League Baseball and the NBA.
In an e-mail to The Associated Press, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league is not going to comment on proposals made by executive director candidates. Aiello, however, noted that "the commissioner's disciplinary authority has always been a bedrock principle of the NFL that has served everyone, including players, very well."
Entering his third year as commissioner, Goodell has made discipline one of his top priorities.
The other three finalists to replace Upshaw, who died in August, are former union presidents Troy Vincent and Trace Armstrong and Washington D.C.-based attorney DeMaurice Smith.
The union is scheduled to select its next boss by vote at its annual meetings at Maui on March 15.
If elected, Cornwell said he would include the issue of discipline as part of the next labor talks after the NFL opted out of the collective bargaining agreement last year.
"If the commissioner regulates player conduct, then it is a term and condition of employment," Cornwell said. "After the StarCaps case and other less-publicized decisions, we will fix the problem caused by no independent review of commissioner disciplinary decisions."
Cornwell made clear that the NFL's reputation would not suffer under his proposal.
"We will make a focused commitment on making sure that the fan understands that the vast majority of NFL players are great community citizens," he said. "The notion that a person who has a bad event is a reflection on all of us is misplaced."
Cornwell also proposed creating a new senior union executive position to directly address concerns of retired players in an attempt to stem a series of lawsuits and complaints against the NFLPA, and begin bridging a rift that has grown between the two sides.
The person taking over the new position of special adviser for retired players would report directly to the executive director, Cornwell said.
Cornwell re-entered the executive director election process after gaining the written support of three of 32 player representatives, as allowed under union rules to place a candidate on the ballot. He had been previously eliminated as a finalist by the union's search committee in January.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press.