How should the NFL improve its disciplinary system regarding domestic violence?

With the news that Ray McDonald has been cut by the Bears swiftly after he was arrested a second time for an incidence of domestic violence, it’s spurned me to open up a discussion on what the NFL in general should do about disciplining such actions—especially since this could ensnare the Broncos soon regarding the ongoing investigation of Antonio Smith. My own thoughts are beyond the fold, and as always, I encourage you to give your own in the comments.

The NFL needs a separate policy for violent behavior

I think one of the reasons why the NFL has struggled to process discipline in this regard is that it’s tried to shoehorn it into the vague realm of the personal conduct policy. In contrast, the NFL has long had separate and far more well-defined policies for performance enhancing drugs and substance abuse. Thus, I’m proposing that the league creates a new policy for sanctioning violent behavior, with its own rules and punishments.

Domestic violence may be the impetus for this new policy, but it’s not the only type of violence that could belong here. Certainly accusations of murder would qualify, as the NFL’s sadly seen with Ray Lewis, Rae Carruth, and Aaron Hernandez. Other forms of assault and battery could qualify as well. Finally, I’d also include DUIs in this policy. That could be another topic for another day, but I’ll just repeat again that Broncos fans should be very lucky that the Ginger Hammer didn’t come down hard on Denver after the back to back DUIs of Matt Russell and Tom Heckert.

Also, note that I’m calling this policy “violent behavior”, and not necessarily “violent crimes”. Here’s why.

Can the NFL afford to wait on the justice system before taking action?

In the thread specifically for the Antonio Smith investigation, Doc Bear stated , and Bob Morris seconded, that the league should take no further action until charges are filed against Smith. I’m hesitant to concur for a few reasons.

First, the wheels of justice turn slowly. In criminal prosecution, this is an overall positive good, as the threat of taking away one’s freedom rightly requires a tough burden of proof—“beyond a reasonable doubt”—a burden that takes much time to establish. But the NFL is not in the business of taking away people’s freedom. It’s in the business of employing football players. And while losing one’s job can be devastating, it’s not as devastating as losing one’s freedom. So it’s thus fair to ask the question of whether a lower burden of proof is appropriate, and likewise if action can be executed faster as a result.

Second, the justice system, like any other system made up of humans, is fallible. In criminal justice, that fallibility is most commonly indemnified against via the concept of “innocent until proven guilty”. But the fallibility can cut the opposite direction as well, and be just as devastating for victims unable to get justice as a false accusation could be. In the realm of domestic violence in particular, society has all too often lagged in this regard, for reasons ranging from victim intimidation to resistance in trusting the accusers to even questioning whether certain actions constitute a violent act. With these kind of historical failures, much of the NFL-viewing public can get frustrated that the league is just another part of the larger system that’s failing in this regard.

To try to mesh the opposing concerns of the accused vs. the accuser, the action that I’m coming around to see as appropriate (as I implied in this comment regarding Smith) is for the NFL to place a player on paid leave when a credible allegation of violent behavior arises, until enough information can be collected to make an informed determination. There would be no suspension, and the player would still have the financial security of his contract to rely upon during that time. I think it would also be reasonable that a police investigation would be required to trigger a paid leave placement. If the NFL receives an anonymous tip of violent behavior, it should encourage the accuser to contact the authorities, and also give the accusers the support they need to do so.

It might be unfair to the player and his team if the allegations don’t materialize, but in football, players are unfairly prevented from playing all the time due to injury. File this under the mantra of “next man up”. It might also be unfair to players who have allegations arise when they are not under contract, but as we saw with what happened to La’el Collins in the draft, there’s not a great way to avoid that problem.

What type of discipline should be meted out for violent behavior infractions?

My mind is quite open as to tangible forms of punishment, such as fines or the number of games to be suspended. I’m not sure if it’s wise to establish a strict formula, as each case has its unique features that may require unique discipline. There is also the question as to whether teams should also face discipline for acquiring such players. This is something that both Mike Freeman and Nancy Armour have already called for regarding the Bears’ signing of McDonald.

However, there is one condition that I would like to see become standard. Whenever the time for reinstatement after a suspension comes around, I think the player should demonstrate that he understands that what he did was wrong, and that he’s also demonstrated how he’s making positive efforts to correct that behavior so it won’t happen again.

This is part of why, although the face of the NFL’s domestic violence problem has become Ray Rice, I’ve always felt that Greg Hardy is far more “worthy” of that dishonor. As horrible as Rice’s action’s were, he at least ultimately expressed remorse for them. This might be because he was caught on camera, but there’s no way to know for sure if things would be different if video didn’t exist. On the other hand, I can’t think of any such humility ever coming from Hardy. That lacking is what is making me hope that his entire suspension sticks on appeal.

But the NFL also needs a better way to enforce policies in general

I don’t think I need to list off numerous cases to state that the way the NFL currently enforces discipline has all kinds of problems, and if my idea for a violent behavior policy were to be accepted, it would still be problematic under the current enforcement regime. I do also have an idea on how to fix that, but that’s going to take an entirely separate thread to properly cover.


Anyway, as usual I haven’t set most of these thoughts in stone, so I’d always appreciate feedback to see on how I can improve some of these thoughts.