Precedence vs. Inconsistency: Where Does the NFL Stand on Domestic Violence?

The effect of the Ray Rice case was two-pronged. It helped propel the conversation about domestic violence by setting a completely new precedent for the NFL. However, it also set in motion a series of judgement calls that have revealed the glaring inconsistencies in the league’s policy.

Photo credit: CNN

Photo credit: CNN

On February 15, 2014, then-Baltimore running back Ray Rice and his then-fiance, Janay, were arrested on charges of assault. It was a story that we’d all seen before. It broke that day as the latest in an awfully long list of examples when athletes ‘screwed up.’

In retrospect, we know the implications were much broader this time around.

Over the course of the next several months, Rice was blasted and condemned by fans and pundits, the Baltimore Ravens released him, and he was buried under the weight of a looming suspension – potentially an indefinite one had he not won his appeal.

In the immediate aftermath, we see that this process revealed two things. First, it demonstrated the power of video in modern society. And second, it started a conversation that the National Football League had been neglecting for a number of years.

As a direct result of the Ray Rice case, the domestic violence policy got a major makeover from the league.

Before the video had been released, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had placed a two-game suspension on Rice based on the assault charges. Of course, the backlash was present before video evidence ever arose. However, once the recording did become available, the league realized it had made a mistake.

As reported by Katie Sharp of SB Nation, Goodell issued a statement to team owners, taking responsibility for the inadequacies of the policy that had been in place and for improving it to reflect the league’s values. “I didn’t get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.”

From then on, the first offense that violated the domestic violence policy would warrant a six-game suspension. Anything after that and the player would be banned from the league.

It was revolutionary. It was, well, evolutionary. But most importantly, it was a matter of precedence. Like the Supreme Court ruling on the Constitution in a court case, judgments and the corresponding punishments from the league are largely based on history, on preexisting cases.

And when it comes to previous cases involving domestic violence from players, as CNN’s Michael Martinez and Priscilla Riojas so succinctly put it: “The NFL’s history of punishing players in domestic violence cases is as complicated as the legal cases themselves.”

And it’s true. In the same report, Martinez and Riojas take readers through a crash-course in the history of domestic violence in the NFL. From prominent players such as Dez Bryant to lesser-knowns like A.J. Jefferson, many got away with minor sanctions or none at all. In fact, a four-game suspension on Jefferson in 2013 was actually overturned by Goodell himself – the league never offered a reason why.

So to crack down hard with sanctions on the opposite end of the spectrum was as surprising as it was necessary in the league’s quest to repair its image. It could very well have been a public relations move once the video was released – we’ll likely never know what went on behind closed doors during those discussion – but even if it was, the positive result is the same.

Precedence is a powerful thing. It was based on precedence that Rice was able to win his appeal with regards to an indefinite suspension. However, this case was also monumental is physically setting a brand new precedent.

It’s because of the Rice case that we’ve witnessed a whirlwind of disputes and judgement calls in the cases against Adrian Peterson and then Greg Hardy – the former for excessively disciplining his child and the latter for being convicted of two misdemeanors of domestic assault against his former girlfriend.

domestic violence

Here’s where things get confusing. Peterson missed the entire 2014 season; however, it was only after he had already received game checks for nine games that the NFL suspended him without pay.

On the other hand, the NFL decided that Hardy’s case warranted a ten-game suspension. However, the league was forced to lower it to a four-game suspension once arbitrator Harold Henderson heard the case, per Dan Hanzus of NFL.com.

The consistency isn’t merely lacking. It’s almost nonexistent.

That’s something that resonates with Adrian Ross, a former linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals who was popularly known as the “Maddbacker.”

I don’t like the punishment in the NFL,” he stated. From the NCAA to the NFL, football and sports itself is trying to have its own law system. There is their own internal punishment. For the Ray Rice case, there was no precedence. Well, there was with other case and how the NFL chose to do them. But this was the one that changed it because… there are laws, regular laws in the Constitution that we deal with as citizens of the United States, and so when the NFL is giving out punishments, to me, from the players side and the players union, I need people that know what they’re doing. How are you just arbitrarily just giving punishment out?”

In essence, the Ray Rice case was not only important because it showed the determination to move forward on behalf of the league, but it also served as a stark reminder of all of the issues the league still faces in carrying out sanctions based on its policies. On some level, it was an eye-opener. The NFL, for all intents and purposes, has its own built-in court system – a jury of executives and Goodell presiding as judge for the final decision.

The inconsistency this type of system leads to is clear. But it also borders on a discussion of ethics. When you have a league dealing punishments of varying degrees almost every week – with the NFLPA serving as the only source of checks and balances – it’s almost impossible to avoid unfairness. The source of bias might be something as pressing as media pressure or as insignificant as discrepancies in individual reputations. This is especially the case now, in a time when the policy itself is undergoing so much internal change.

As long as the NFL has discretion and latitude when it comes to personal conduct matters, there will continue to be problems, Dani Bostick told me. Bostick currently covers the Pittsburgh Steelers for SB Nation, but also writes at the Huffington Post, among other outlets, with a specialization in sexual abuse and assault.

The NFLPA and the league need to hammer out clearer standards and consequences and include them in the next CBA. Meanwhile, players end up punished more severely for marijuana-related infractions than they do for incidents of domestic violence. The NFL is a business, and business is booming. They have little incentive, even in the face of public outrage, to change policies related to domestic violence.”

Until a common understanding on the issue is pursued, the results will likely remain erratic.

As of now, the NFL is content playing the role of judge, jury, and executioner. And as of now, we seem to be content to let it happen. But at some point, the people in power need to be held accountable for their actions.

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 11: A fan wears an altered Ray Rice jersey outside of M&T Bank Stadium before the game between Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers on September 11, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Ravens terminated the contract of running back Ray Rice and the NFL suspended him indefinitely after the release of video showing Rice striking his then-fiancée in a hotel elevator. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

BALTIMORE, MD – SEPTEMBER 11: A fan wears an altered Ray Rice jersey outside of M&T Bank Stadium before the game between Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

This is not just a conversation that affects the players in the NFL, however. Collegiate athletes are regularly scrutinized by the NCAA, as sanctions are often handed down to student-athletes without forgiveness for any first offense. As Adrian Ross pointed out, this separation of law from the legal court system starts with college.

For those college football players that are preparing for their respective Pro Days in advance of the Draft this time during the Spring, the NFL is the end-goal of a long, hard process of training and playing. But even before entering the league, these athletes recognize the amount of jurisdiction that the leagues exert over its players’ lives, for better or for worse.

In fact, some declined comment on a topic as sensitive as domestic abuse, voicing their wish to keep their head down and avoid any paper trail for negative comments on the league.

Others were more willing to publicly acknowledge the problems that they see with these inconsistencies within the NFL’s policies – though the results were decidedly mixed.

Some, like Brandon Hutchison of Michigan Tech, are in agreement with at least the foundation of the NCAA and NFL’s policy-making.

I think that the NFL and NCAA have the right to be their own court systems,” Hutchison said. “But the power should follow some guidelines. I believe that they come secondary to Federal and state laws and should base their punish off those punishments/verdicts.”

However, the MTU receiver also went on to preach consistency, citing his belief in a three-strike rule in which “[the first] is an intermediate punishment, the second infraction of sthe ame action is harsh, and [the third] is severe.”

Hutchison was also very clear in his own zero-tolerance policy when it comes to domestic violence, so long as they are convicted, not merely accused – a sentiment echoed by Dixie State linebacker, Robert Metz, and Kolby Griffin, a defensive end who transferred from Texas Christian University to play at Kentucky State.

However, each present a different perspective as well. Griffin points towards his belief in second chances and also draws a line between punishment from a court of law and from the NFL, which is a job.

We have a system as to where people break the law are punished,” he said. “I don’t believe that your job should be allowed to punish you any further than that. Picking yourself up and turning your life around after a mistake was once a major part of the American Dream.”

Metz personally has women in his life that were victims to domestic abuse. “I think any serious domestic violence case should result in some sort of suspension or termination,” he said.

This may be one argument, but the perspectives are numerous – and there’s very little black and white when it comes to policy on domestic violence. The league must balance a focus on consequence and player’s rights, as explained by Jessica Luther, a specialist on the politics of domestic abuse at the college level.

That attempt at balance may or may not be misconstrued as a sort of power complex; it depends on who you talk to. However, it’s clear that the timeline is full of inconsistencies that need to be addressed sooner rather than later. When dealing with a string of incidents over just the last two years since Ray Rice, there hasn’t been any sense of continuity in how the league has dealt with each case. What was once an example of precedence, the Ray Rice case’s importance will become more and more foggy as the inconsistencies continue down the line.

The next few years are crucial for the league. The trench between how courts of law and how the league hands down judgement should not be so noticeable, and as many athletes, advocates, and credible voices on the subject have voiced, these standards need to be properly set up and maintained.

Based on the social and professional implications of cases in these last two years, the next Collective Bargaining Agreement should have some very intriguing points of contention.

Let us know what you think!