Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Roger Goodell gets it right with NFL’s new personal conduct policy

We have never before seen the leader of a major professional sport admit a mistake as unequivocally or atone for it as immediately — and forcefully — as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell did Thursday.

On the eve of its season, America’s most popular league has gone from being seen as soft on domestic violence to drawing a hard line against it. The message to players is clear: Football might be a sport of accepted physicality and hitting, but if you bring the violence home and inflict it in an abusive relationship, your career is in jeopardy.

The NFL’s instantly-in-place new policy, outlined in a Thursday letter from Goodell to all 32 club owners, isn’t quite zero tolerance, but it’s close.

A first incident of domestic violence will entail a minimum six-game suspension without pay, or at least 37.5 percent of a 16-game season. A second offense will call for a lifetime ban from the league. The policy includes all league and team personnel, not just players. Punishment would follow adjudication of a case, such as a conviction or plea agreement.

It was just a few weeks ago that a public outcry reached Goodell after Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice was given a two-game suspension roundly decried as much too lenient, after a security video caught Rice striking his then-fiancée and dragging her apparently unconscious body from an elevator.

“I didn’t get it right,” admitted Goodell in his letter, of that two-game punishment.

Thursday, with the new policy, he got it right.

Cynics might call it a public relations maneuver, but the more hopeful among us see it instead as a positive and unmistakable message.

The NFL’s sweeping personal conduct policy once made possible harsher penalties for such things as substance abuse and DUI offenses than for domestic violence. That has changed.

“My disciplinary decision [in the Rice matter] led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families,” Goodell wrote. “I didn’t get it right. We have to do better. And we will. These steps are based on a clear, simple principle: Domestic violence and sexual assault are wrong. They are illegal. They have no place in the NFL and are unacceptable in any way, under any circumstance.”

The story here, though, is bigger than the focus of it, which is football stepping up against domestic violence.

The larger story is that sports in general, and the NFL, especially, are increasingly erasing the line between what its players do on the field and in their personal lives. More than ever, teams must be aware of the people, not just the players, they are inviting into their cities and onto their rosters. Measurable skills such as strength and speed are fine, but it is becoming just as important for teams to investigate whether a player might have a predilection for strip clubs, guns, alcohol or raising a hand to a wife or girlfriend — anything to indicate league suspensions may be in the offing.

Just last season, in Miami, we saw the NFL embarrassed by the so-called “Bullygate” matter in which lineman Jonathan Martin was tormented by several teammates led by Richie Incognito.

Just this week, the Cleveland Browns lost star receiver Josh Gordon to a one-year suspension for repeated failed drug tests.

Who you are out of uniform increasingly matters.

And there can’t but be a positive trickle-down effect as college players and even high school players begin to understand that their dreams of the NFL and its riches might hinge not just on their times in a 40-yard dash, but also on their times on a police report.

The new NFL domestic violence policy, for example, indicates that if a player had an incident of that in college, that would be weighed and likely increase the penalty for his first incident in the NFL.

Leagues, teams and players’ unions finally are gathering the collective spine to insist that the millions of dollars players are being paid buys more than just their athletic talent. It also pays for how they represent their franchise, the brand, the name on the front of the jersey.

Dear athletes: Citizenship, character and deportment matter. You needn’t be a perfect role model. Just don’t be a criminal, or an embarrassment. And don’t be so naive as to think you are being paid those millions just to be great on Sundays. You are being paid to be good every day.

Goodell, in his Thursday letter to owners, spoke of the goal of NFL teams being “model workplaces filled with people of character.”

It isn’t too much to ask.

Rather, it is worth insisting upon.