Trotter: Claims against Michael Bidwill could put Roger Goodell, integrity of game to the test

The NFL regularly talks about the importance of protecting the integrity of the game. We seemingly hear it each time discipline is handed down, how nothing is more central to the health and sustenance of the country’s most popular sports league than public confidence that everything is on the up and up.

The league’s commitment to those words is likely to be tested if it’s proven that Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill participated in a burner-phone scheme to circumvent the suspension of former general manager Steve Keim several years ago.

Some background:

In 2018, the Cardinals suspended Keim for five weeks and fined him $200,000 after Keim pleaded guilty to extreme DUI. Under terms of the suspension, he was  required to attend counseling, complete a DUI education course, and not have any contact with the team.

However, last April The Athletic reported allegations that Bidwill and Keim attempted to circumvent the suspension by using burner phones to communicate with top team officials. The claim was made by club executive Terry McDonough, who in an arbitration filing accused Bidwill of demoting him for objecting to use the phones.

The Cardinals denied the claims through Jim McCarthy, an external PR adviser to the club. McCarthy did acknowledge the presence of the burner phones, which he said were obtained by an unidentified team executive, but he credited Bidwill with terminating the proposed scheme after learning of it.

The veracity of that claim was refuted last week by Steve Wilks, the Cardinals’ coach at the time. According to ESPN, Wilks testified that he was given a burner phone by a team executive to communicate with Keim and that upper management was aware of it.

“It was a directive from Keim as well as Bidwill,” he reportedly said during a deposition. “They both knew.”

If true, that paints a completely different picture and puts Roger Goodell directly in the middle of it. The commissioner has been criticized in the past for appearing to be more lenient with owners than he is with players when handing out discipline, a claim that some in the league office have pushed back against but a perception that could make the Cardinals situation a true test of his credibility.

One thing we know about Goodell from his dealings with players is that he comes down harder if he finds someone has lied to him. Example 1: Vick, Michael. If there is evidence to support the claims of Wilks and McDonough, it would mean McCarthy — and, by extension, Bidwill — lied about Bidwill putting an end to the scheme, which is serious because it goes to the heart of competitive integrity.

A general manager ostensibly is responsible for all off-field football decisions, from who is signed to who is cut to who receives extensions. Keim reportedly took part in negotiations with running back David Johnson while out, something that would be a clear violation of his suspension and a move that benefitted the team in the moment.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been criticized for appearing to be more lenient with owners than he is with players when handing out discipline. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

The league’s personal conduct policy states that “ownership and club or league management have traditionally been held to a higher standard and will be subject to more significant discipline when violations of the Personal Conduct Policy occur,” but that has not traditionally been the case. The policy also states that a person does not have to be charged or convicted to face discipline, but that standard is used more often to punish players than owners.

What Bidwill is accused of doing is breaking the rules, of compromising the integrity of the game. You could make the case that it is the cousin of cheating. I’m not naive enough to think this hasn’t happened elsewhere. After all, it was comical for the league to think anyone would believe Snyder was not running the Commanders while suspended, particularly when the person entrusted to oversee the team was his wife, and coach Ron Rivera publicly admitted to being in communication with him.

The difference here is the curtains have been pulled back. People on the inside have come forward to allege the suspension was a farce, that Keim and Bidwill knew they were wrong but did it anyway. If true, Bidwill deserves one of the most severe suspensions and fines in league history. Not only because of the ruse itself but also because it means he lied to the commissioner — and the public.

In the NFL’s digital handbook for football operations, there is a chapter titled “INTEGRITY OF THE GAME: Ensuring a consistent and fair game that is decided on the field, by the players.” The words are superimposed over the picture of a capacity crowd at Lambeau Field, which likely isn’t an accident.

Lambeau Field is an iconic and venerable venue, a place where you can envision the legends of the game lining up and speaking to each other. To some, it represents a time of purity in the game. The allegations against Bidwill are a threat to the image the league wants us to buy into.

If Goodell is intent on protecting the integrity of the game, he will deal with Bidwill harshly. Anything less than that will leave the impression that he is more interested in protecting the owners than protecting the game.

(Top photo of Michael Bidwill (left) and Steve Keim: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

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