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No consistency in NFL punishments

July 30, 2014 - Shaunna Dunder Hershberger
Oh those wacky, inconsistent NFL disciplinarians - up to their hijinks again!

Those purveyors of punishment just slapped a wimpy two-game suspension and a pocket full of change fine on Ray Rice for an alleged domestic violence incident involving Rice and his then-fiancee, now wife, Janay Palmer. A video of the aftermath of the alleged incident surfaced in February, showing Rice dragging his unconscious fiancee from an elevator. Whatever happened before the elevator doors opened, however, remains uncertain.

I've been reading some of the fallout of Rice's penalty, and many (well, ok, most) seem very unhappy. Some even go so far as to suggest the NFL hates women. I don't really think it has much to do with that, but more to do with an inconsistent punishment overall in the league.

You'd think a league as prestigious as the NFL would want its athletes to come off with high moral standards. There are a few bad apples in every bunch, and not all these athletes are destined to be upstanding citizens, so it's up to each team to keep those bad seeds under control.

Little kids - and even some adults - look up to these guys. So when someone violates the rules, the team needs to deal with the situation and hand down a just punishment. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is infamous for instituting harsher punishments for those violating the NFL's personal code of conduct, but he's since turned the reigns over to the teams, allowing each to handle its own dirty work. Still, there are situations when the NFL becomes involved, like in the case of the New Orleans Saints and the whole Bounty Gate incident.

One major problem with the NFL's personal conduct policy is that it's quite vague. The document itself is only two and a half pages long, and most of the first page yammers on and on about how NFL employees are held to much higher standards. According to the policy, irresponsible behavior "puts innocent people at risk, sullies the reputation of others involved in the game, and undermines public respect and support for the NFL."

Under the list of disciplinary offenses, criminal offenses relating to the threat of violence, domestic violence or other forms of partner abuse, sexual violence, theft, fraud and other similar infractions are listed first. Listed second are criminal offenses relating to prohibited substances. But after that is where things get fuzzy.

The NFL says that once they learn of said detrimental conduct, they would launch an investigation to gather relevant information, and discipline could come in the form of a fine, suspension or banishment. There are no specifics laid out for specific crimes. In fact, the policy states that the disciplinary response will be based on the nature of the crime.

The NFL's substance abuse policy, on the other hand, is 35 pages long and includes extremely detailed outlines of different stages of violations for both alcohol abuse and abuse of non-alcohol substances. Punishments, fines and suspensions are all broken down for each stage and incident. There's not much left up to the imagination here as what needs to be done when a player violates the substance abuse policy, as in, nobody needs to evaluate the nature of the incident because the NFL already made the interpretation for you. It's there in black and white.

And that's why we get Rice with a two-game suspension for an alleged domestic violence issue - something that certainly "sullies the reputation of those involved in the league" and "undermines public respect" - while Josh Gordon, who violated the NFL's substance abuse policy and allegedly used marijuana, is facing a year-long suspension, based on his current stage outlined in the substance abuse policy. Gordon's behavior also sullies the way the public views the league, but what really makes his behavior worse than Ray Rice's? Did Rice just get lucky because he violated league policy in an area of "It's up to you" discipline, unlike Gordon, who made the mistake of choosing a violation in an area with plenty of outlined circumstances in black and white?

Let's put this into a little bit of perspective. Gordon allegedly smoked a joint - FYI, marijuana is legal in two states and many other states have relaxed their laws or allow medical use - and might have to sit out a year. Rice allegedly punched his girlfriend in the face and knocked her out cold, and he gets to play in week three.

If the NFL wants to be taken seriously when it dishes out punishments, then consistency is the key. Gordon's in this case seems excessive, while Rice's seems too lax. Hopefully the NFL will use the public backlash to take a long look at their personal conduct policy and make some necessary changes. Until then, Rice's "punishment" will remain a huge black eye for the NFL.

 
 

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