NFL’s Unique Responses To Unusual Discipline Situations

In the past nine days after Week 1 of the NFL season, the league has faced more questions about how to address  allegations domestic violence and child abuse than ever before. It also has had to take a look in the mirror about whether the systems in place appropriately investigate and discipline conduct issues of players and league staff.

Early Monday morning, the release of the Ray Rice elevator video on TMZ that revealed that Rice punched his then-fiancee and current wife Janay sent shockwaves not only throughout sports, but also became a major topic on news shows throughout the week. By Monday afternoon, the Baltimore Ravens terminated Rice’s contract, and commissioner Roger Goodell subsequently suspended Rice, who had a previous suspension of two games, indefinitely because of “new video evidence”, even though the league’s new domestic violence policy was six games for a first offense, and a lifetime ban for a second.

But the controversy and news cycle did not end there, as questions about what the league office and Goodell knew about the ability to get the elevator video tape, and whether Rice’s description of events to the league office was the same or different to what was seen on the video by millions. A week ago today, the NFL announced that an independent investigation into the pursuit and handling of the Rice video evidence would be conducted by former FBI Director Robert Mueller.

Ray Rice Ravens 350

The week still had some bombshells, however, as the narrative shift from the perceived late decision on Rice to how other domestic violence situations were handled, specifically Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald. Hardy was convicted by a judge in North Carolina of assaulting a female and communicating threats on July 15, and though he appealed to a have a jury trial in November, the severity of the charges in the case led many to wonder why Hardy was still playing.

McDonald was arrested on August 31 after an incident in which he allegedly hit his pregnant fiancee. To this point, McDonald has played both games for the 49ers, with the organization not succumbing to public pressure to keep him off the field before any due process has ended.

CEO Jed York commented on the matter last week via KNBR (via Pro Football Talk’s Darin Gantt):

“(My) character is, I will not punish somebody until we see evidence that it should be done or before an entire organization, an entire legal, police investigation, shows us something,” 

The matter of how an NFL team should handle due process was looked at deeper when Adrian Peterson was indicted by a Montgomery County, Texas grand jury on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child on Friday. The Minnesota Vikings deactivated Peterson for Sunday’s game against New England hours after the indictment, while the Panthers took until the final three hours before kickoff to deactivate Hardy for the game against Detroit.

When the initial decision on Monday by the Vikings was made to reactivate Peterson for this week’s game against the New Orleans Saints, there was not only outcry by some fans, but also statements from sponsors. Soon after the decision, the Radisson Hotel announced a suspension of their limited sponsorship with the team:

“Radisson takes this matter very seriously particularly in light of our long-standing commitment to the protection of children. We are closely following the situation and effective immediately, Radisson is suspending its limited sponsorship of the Minnesota Vikings while we evaluate the facts and circumstances.”

On Tuesday, league’s official beer, Anheuser Busch, along with Visa, Campbell’s Soup, and Pepsi issued statements that expressed “disappointment” and “concern” over the way the NFL has handled off-field behavior (via the New York Daily News’ Corky Siemaszco). Afterward, the parties involved found a new way to both allow a player’s due process rights while avoiding the controversy and criticism that would come with having him on the field.

In the cases of Peterson and Hardy, the NFL, NFLPA, the teams (Vikings and Panthers, respectively), and players themselves worked in unison to come up with a solution: Placing the player on the Exempt/Commissioner’s permission list, allowing both Peterson and Hardy to be paid while sorting out their respective legal cases before returning to the playing field. How long this remains a viable solution for not just these circumstances but others that may come is unclear, as Arizona Cardinals running back was deactivated from the team tonight following an arrest on domestic violence charges (via Bleacher Report).

For its part, the league has decided to bring new perspectives and voices to NFL offices, as five women have been hired this week: Cynthia A. Hogan, a former counsel to the Vice President of the United States as NFL Senior Vice President of Public Policy and Government Affairs; Anna Isaacson, promoted from Vice President of Community Affairs and Philanthropy to Vice President of Social Responsibility; Lisa Friel, former head of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit in New York County District Attorney’s Office, as an adviser to the NFL’s policies and programs “relating to domestic violence and sexual assault”; Jane Randle, co-founder of No More, a national initiative to raise awareness and conversation about domestic violence and sexual assault, will also be an adviser to the league’s policies and programs on both issues; and Rita Smith, the former executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, joins Friel and Randle.

The NFL has entered new territory in terms of trying to find the best way to investigate and adjudicate cases at the league level. It is now clearer than ever that all parties must work around the legal situations a player are facing while also making sure that there is no tolerance for those in the league who do commit acts of domestic violence.

Vikings officials, including owners Mark and Zygi Wilf, said they made “a mistake” and they “needed to get this right” (via’s Marc Sessler). Those are the words commissioner Goodell used in his letter (via Pro Football Talk) to all 32 owners in late August in both saying that the league’s standards fell “below where they should be” in addressing the Ray Rice case initially, and putting forth his new domestic violence policy.

All situations are different, but with the climate of the past couple of weeks, all parties involved have had to improvise. As Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said at a press conference addressing placement of Greg Hardy on the Exempt/Commissioner’s Permission list: “There is not a rule book for this”.

Both the Vikings and Panthers addressed today wanting to do “the right thing”.  But sometimes, there has to be a rule book to know not only how to do the right thing, but how to do it right.

For the future, one would hope that whatever missteps have been made and by whom, there is a rule book that can be made to make sure that the NFL, NFLPA, the teams, and players all have clear expectations of what to do in these newfound situations. These include having due process rights from both a legal and league perspective, being able to retain a livelihood at the same time, and also having the ability to hold accountable those that due harm the image of the NFL and its players.

One would most sincerely hope, as a byproduct of the amount of criticism and questioning of these issues, that the day for that is coming soon.



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