Consistency Key to NFL Disciplinary Policies

The recent revelation that Denver Broncos defensive end Antonio Smith is the subject of a child abuse investigation, and that NFL defensive end Ray McDonald has been arrested for domestic violence for the second time in a year’s span, begs the question as to what the NFL’s role should be in disciplining players for off-field incidents.

I will start by saying that I appreciate Nick generating some discussion about what should be done to discipline players, and I understand where he is coming from when he talks about how the wheels turn slowly in the judicial system, and it doesn’t always get the most satisfactory outcome.

With that said, I do not believe the NFL — or any organization, for that matter — should engage in disciplinary action for the sake of maintaining good public relations. It’s true the NFL maintains a high public profile, but that’s mostly because Roger Goodell wants it that way. It isn’t like a police officer who is involved in an incident in which a suspect is killed, or a teacher who is accused of, but not charged with, sexually abusing a child. Those people are tasked with a specific duty of great importance, in which certain circumstances can directly impact the level of public trust they must maintain. It’s understandable why you would put them on paid leave pending certain investigations. An NFL player’s duty is to help his team win games, which carries far less importance in the grand scheme than the duties of a police officer or teacher.

I understand, though, that the NFL shouldn’t just sit back and watch whatever develops in the judicial system. The trick, though, is for the NFL to not act like it’s trying to keep people from getting up in arms that “we must do something!” There will always be people who want the hammer dropped in a given situation, but that doesn’t mean the NFL must always discipline that way.

I remain hesitant to say the NFL should take any action when a player is merely being investigated or questioned for any case. My concern is that, if the NFL took action every time a player was questioned for whatever charge came up, it might be tempted to hand out a punishment to appease critics, even if no charges are ever filed. The judicial system may not be perfect, but it’s designed to not just charge a person just to pacify anyone who gets upset.

The NFL should be no different. It should not see its mission as making up for whatever shortcomings are identified in the judicial system. It should recognize that an investigation is just that, and its best approach is to wait to see what happens before taking action. It would be reasonable, though, for the NFL to ask law enforcement to give updates about the situation, and ask the player cooperate with the NFL about developments. If law enforcement declares that no charges will be filed, the NFL should consider the case closed from its end.

Now, if misdemeanor or felony charges are filed against a player, I can understand the need to take action. Therefore, I would approve of establishing a “paid probationary list” in which the player is deactivated from the roster, but is guaranteed to receive his salary. What discipline the player would receive would depend on the outcome of the case. My suggestions would be:

* If the player is found not guilty by judge or jury, he is removed from the probationary list and no further action is taken. Again, we must realize that, while the judicial system may not be perfect, the NFL should recognize that as well, and not make its own assumptions.

* If charges are dropped, the NFL places the player on a one-year probationary period, in which he is allowed to play and participate in all team activities. It would recognize, while the player shouldn’t be barred from playing, that charges get dropped for many reasons, ranging from the accuser not wanting to press charges to technicalities about evidence, even if there is reason to believe the accused is responsible to some degree. However, if the player is arrested or charged again during that probationary period, he gets an automatic four-game suspension. This four-game suspension would also kick in if, while a case is still pending, the player is charged for a second, separate incident. This would address concerns about players who are arrested for multiple incidents in a short time frame.

* If a player pleads guilty or no contest (the latter is technically not a guilty plea, but has the same effect), he will receive a six-game suspension. If a player goes to trial and is found guilty, he gets an eight-game suspension. This is to recognize the degrees of court rulings and how likely is the defendant taking responsibility.

*After serving a first suspension for a conviction, the player goes on a two-year probationary period. If a player is arrested during that period, he automatically serves a four-game suspension. If convicted during that period, he will get a year-long suspension, and must apply with the NFL commissioner for reinstatement.

* The four-game suspension for two arrests in a short time frame does not replace the suspension for a conviction. Example: A player is arrested for DUI. He goes on the paid probationary list. The charges are dropped on a technicality. The player goes on NFL probation, and three months into the period, he is arrested for domestic violence. After that arrest, he automatically gets a four-game suspension. The player pleads guilty to the domestic violence charges. He then must serve a separate six-game suspension.

* Suspensions would apply to regular season or postseason games. Example: If a player starts his six-game suspension with three games remaining in the regular season, and the team makes the playoffs, the player must sit out the first playoff game. If the team loses that game, the player must sit out the first two games of the next regular season.

* Suspensions are not waived if a player is released from his team or if he spends time on injured reserve. Once he is on a 53-man roster, his suspension begins or continues.

* I would be willing to consider exceptions for more serious felony charges, in which the player could face a lengthy prison sentence for a first offense. However, both the NFL commissioner and a representative from the NFLPA should jointly meet with law enforcement officials to determine the nature of the case and evidence against the player. Based on what is discussed with law enforcement, the commissioner and NFLPA rep could agree the player should be suspended indefinitely.

* The NFL commissioner is not allowed to go above or below outlined suspensions based on how well known the player is, how much publicity the case attracts, or how much remorse is or is not shown. Punishments will remain the same for each player, as outlined in the policy.

* NFL officials, owners, coaches, general managers, and team officials would be held to these same standards. This would make it clear to players that they aren’t being singled out.

* For those who believe teams should be punished if they sign a player who has been arrested before, and gets arrested again, that’s overreacting to the situation. I agree with what Tom Ley said on Deadspin that it could make things worse, ranging from players being blackballed from the NFL for one arrest resulting from an honest mistake, to teams trying to cover up for star players who get arrested. A better suggestion is to require that, if a team is interested in signing or extending a player on NFL probation for an arrest or conviction, the team must talk to law enforcement officials as part of the decision-making process, and failure to do so could result in penalties.

Again, no system is going to ensure every player who should be disciplined, gets disciplined. Nor is it the NFL’s duty to make up for the judicial system’s weak points. The important thing is to have a consistent policy in place, separate from any other disciplinary policy, and have it negotiated between the NFL commissioner and an NFLPA rep, separate from any other CBA issues. No policy will make everyone happy, but consistency will minimize complaints about how the NFL views player conduct off the field.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.