In the past few weeks, the NFL has revised both its domestic violence and its banned substances policy, by, among other changes, increasing punishments for the former and decreasing them for the latter. There were significant problems with how the NFL handled each type of infraction, and there still are despite the new policies (see Hardy, Greg), but in general things are at least more aligned with how the larger society views the crimes in proportion to each other. Gone is the radically backwards belief formerly codified in the NFL bylaws that smoking pot is a worse crime than beating a woman.
The fact that it took two separate videos surrounding the Ray Rice incident to make this judicial inequity clear to both the NFL and their fans is unfortunate, sort of disgraceful, and a pretty clear indication that the NFL is reactive, instead of active, in its policies.
(It also made clear that the NFL and Roger Goodell don’t understand the nature of causation, i.e., what has to happen in an elevator ride to have it end with a man dragging an unconscious woman out of it, or what is inevitable when there is a second tape of the incident floating around and the staff at the place that has the video, which is worth lots of money, are getting laid off, or what happens when you leave reporters out to dry, or what happens when you constantly lie to the public and use incompetence as an excuse for moral failings. It ultimately made it clear to a great many people that Roger Goodell should be removed from his duties as Commissioner.)
What no one is really asking, however, is how did the NFL’s punishments for most crimes/infractions, including the “gates” (bounty and spy), drunk driving, banned substances, and performance enhancing drugs, become so thoroughly enforced while domestic violence had no such punishment prescribed or implemented until recently? I think a pretty simple explanation is that the NFL isn’t a law enforcement entity (although that seems to change depending on Roger Goodell’s mood), and that crimes committed off the field, or have no direct impact on the game itself, should be handled by the law, which 99% of the time doesn’t give people charged with crimes like Ray Rice committed the deal that Ray Rice got.
One could argue that the NFL can and should let crimes committed off the field be handled by law enforcement authorities, and that only in the case of direct impact to the game, or its integrity, should the NFL be suspending people. The NFL’s earliest suspensions were all for gambling or fixing games, which makes sense, given that those are crimes that mean far different things to law enforcement than they do to the NFL, since gambling or fixing games would destroy the league’s validity.
According to Fivethirtyeight.com and my counting of the suspensions they compiled, there were six suspensions by the league office between the formation of the NFL in 1920 and when the league began drug testing in 1987. There were an additional 34 suspensions from 2000 to the start of the 2006 season when Roger Goodell replaced Paul Tagliabue as commissioner. Of those 34 suspensions, twenty were for PEDs, seven were for substance abuse, and the remaining seven were for personal conduct violations and in-game incidents. This makes sense, as PED use poses a threat to the integrity of the sport, much as gambling did in a previous era. Since Goodell took over in 2006, there have been, by my count, 192 suspensions (!). Now there could be a lot of reasons for this, one is more sophisticated drug testing, one is the fact that players are using more PEDs, and another might be that with more money than ever, the players are just out of control. Or maybe nothing has changed, and Goodell is simply reacting to the fact that crimes that used to be easily forgotten now quickly grab national headlines due to the new media landscape, which has forced him to react to just about everything.
Roger Goodell has made himself the league’s enforcer and protector of the shield, and in doing so has put himself in a position to be questioned for his punishments, or lack thereof. Before he started with his crusade to clean up the game, nobody would consider it his job to create and implement domestic violence policies, and nobody would have started evaluating how ad-hoc and inconsistent his system of justice was. But Roger Goodell bullrushed his way into the land of behavior regulation (the newest example being the type of “inappropriate language” penalty that Colin Kaepernick was hit with on Sunday), and the league didn’t seem to stop and consider that fact that an asserted right to penalize anybody for anything means that systems of justice have to be established. Once the precedent has been set that all behavior is punishable by the league, omissions or weak penalties for certain acts are now unforgivable. There is no longer an excuse to make that any crime is outside of the jurisdiction of the NFL.
Of course they were going to miss some sort of infraction, and of course it was domestic violence, which is no surprise because the NFL is a man’s league, a man’s league predicated on violence. (Breast Cancer Awareness month, the NFL’s transparently cynical PR push to remind it’s viewers of a disease everybody is well aware of, is going to be particularly awkward this year).
Maybe the crime here isn’t that the NFL has adjudicated poorly, maybe the problem is that a sports league that profits off violence and broken brains thinks it can adjudicate behavior at all. And when it does, is it any surprise that its judgment about the relative severity of crimes isn’t going to be in alignment with the rest of society’s, which outside of a few isolated areas, discourages violence and has more or less accepted marijuana use?
The NFL treats its players, who have the shortest shelf life of any professional athlete and who must sacrifice their individuality more than any major team sport participant, as automatons whose function is violence. These can be replaced when their CPUs breaks down, which they most likely will, because there are no guaranteed contracts. If you pay people money to commit violence in a regimented, team first environment, then anything that asserts or displays individuality, smoking pot, taking a public political stance, non-normative sexual orientation, are all distractions. They create individuation that disrupts the uniformity of team. In the business of violence, violence committed off the field or misdirected is unwanted, sure, but it’s not a fundamental rejection of the NFL’s programming. It’s a slight malfunction. It’s the kind of aggressive play that results in a personal foul penalty, the kind coaches can live with because they’d rather have their players living on the edge of chaos then be afraid to approach it.
I’m not saying this is a conscious decision by the NFL, or that the owners, coaches, players, or staff of the NFL don’t sincerely care about stopping violence against women. And clearly the NFL is trying to figure out just what amount of violence is appropriate, and how the game can be made safer. But like any organization, the more power the NFL gives itself, the more power it craves. The more the NFL decides that its job is to police personal conduct, they more they are going to be faced with their own contradictions. This is made worse by the fact that up until recently, Roger Goodell was the source of appeal for Roger Goodell’s decisions.
The NFL screwed up the Ray Rice incident badly. But what the incident made clear is that the NFL under Roger Goodell has created a haphazard system of justice that lays in the hands of one man, and operates according to a set of values that is out of touch with the values of its audience. It was only a matter of time before a Ray Rice came along to show us that.