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Will NFL discipline Michael Bidwill, Cardinals in aftermath of Terry McDonough ruling?

The Cardinals owe former executive Terry McDonough $3 million for defamation. Is that the end, or just the beginning?

Friday’s 56-page ruling shows that the team attacked McDonough with a false and malicious statement after he chose to pursue an arbitration claim over the termination of his employment. The Cardinals falsely accused McDonough of abandoning responsibility for his daughter and cutting her off financially. The Cardinals also falsely accused McDonough of “extreme domestic violence.”

For these lies about McDonough, the Cardinals will pay $750,000 in compensatory damages and $2.25 million in punitive damages.

The ruling, while absolving the team of firing McDonough in retaliation for his reluctance to use a burner phone to communicate with former Cardinals G.M. Steve Keim during his suspension for DUI, makes it clear that the Cardinals did indeed use burner phones to communicate with Keim during his suspension.

Will these findings prompt discipline of owner Michael Bidwill and/or the team?

As to the intentional defaming of McDonough, responsibility for the lies ultimately flow to the Cardinals, who hired the P.R. executive who drafted and released the defamatory statement. Bidwill owns the Cardinals. His organization committed an intentional tort against McDonough, and an arbitrator hand picked by the NFL found that the misconduct caused $750,000 in actual harm to McDonough and justified punishment in the amount of $2.25 million. Basically, the arbitrator found that the Cardinals did something really bad to McDonough, bad enough to justify payment of $3 million in traditional litigation damages.

The Personal Conduct Policy applicable to non-players includes a list of prohibited actions. Two of them potentially apply here. First, the policy targets “stalking, harassment, or similar forms of intimidation.” Second, the policy includes a catch-all provision regarding “conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of, or public confidence in, the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL personnel.”

As to the former, how is telling deliberate lies about a former employee not “harassment, or similar forms of intimidation”? They wanted to attack him for filing his claim, and they surely hoped he would just drop it. As to the latter, this behavior definitely impairs the integrity of the NFL, the Cardinals, and Bidwill.

Bidwill’s team, when faced with a former employee who decided to pursue his legal rights through the league’s internal arbitration process, went on the attack. Bidwill’s team wanted to make McDonough look bad. Bidwill’s team lied about McDonough in order to make him look bad. The arbitrator decided that the lies justify a $3 million payment.

It would be easy (and predictable, given the league’s propensity to use a double standard) to say that Bidwill has been punished by the award of punitive damages. However, that’s not punishment under the Personal Conduct Policy. It’s punishment via the league’s secret, rigged, kangaroo approximation of an actual court system, which likely would have resulted in a verdict much higher than $3 million under these same facts.

If a player engages in personal conduct that requires the player to pay $750,000 in compensatory damages and $2.25 million in punitive damages, that would get the league’s attention. If the player’s behavior was targeted at a co-worker, that would make punishment by the league even more likely.

Here, Bidwill’s team — and, ultimately, Bidwill — deliberately, falsely, and maliciously attacked McDonough, simply because he had the nerve to pursue a legal claim that he reasonably believed to be valid. How does that not trigger punishment of Bidwill under the Personal Conduct Policy?

The burner phones are a separate issue. The Cardinals clearly violated the terms of Keim’s suspension, a suspension that surely was the result of conversation and ultimately agreement with the league. How does that not require a full-blown, Mary Jo White-style investigation, followed by proper punishment for the deliberate circumvention of the suspension?

We’ll see what the league does, or doesn’t do, about these issues. If the league takes no action against Bidwill, it re-confirms the existence of two standards when it comes to personal conduct, one for players and one for owners. If the league takes no action for the violation of Keim’s suspension via burner phones, it re-confirms that the league has inconsistent standards when it comes to imposing discipline on teams that break the rules, with some getting hammered and some getting a pass.