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The NFL’s System of Discipline Is An Absolute Joke

On Tuesday night, the NFL announced another round of suspensions pertaining to a variety of conduct issues among players, such as drug use, PED use, and domestic violence. They also announced their denial of Julian Edelman’s appeal of his PED suspension. This dumping of discipline, as well as that of Jameis Winston which was announced earlier in the week, once again demonstrates the NFL’s discipline process to be a complete and utter joke. From arbitrary punishments to baffling social and moral ideals, the NFL’s attempt to administer “justice” across the league is an embarrassment to the game of football and American sports as a whole.

The NFL, like all other professional sports leagues, has a number of rules and restrictions that dictate the behaviors of players both on and off the field, from personal conduct policies to limits on the types of substances that players can put in their bodies (both recreationally and professionally). It is important to note that the NFL is not wrong for implementing these policies. Players should be held up to certain social and moral standards as they are both professionals and role models. In addition, while there are fair and reasonable debates that argue that players should be allowed to utilize some PED’s and some types of recreational drugs (such as marijuana), the NFL is still a private company and is allowed to place these restrictions on their employees if they see fit. The problem is not in these rules themselves, but rather in the bizarre and illogical way in which they are enforced.

Let’s start with the process itself. When an incident occurs with a player, the NFL investigates the situation and then uses the collected evidence to make an informed decision, through which they determine a punishment.

Well, sometimes.

Other times, such as with Ray Rice, the NFL does not independently or thoroughly investigate the situation at all, instead choosing to simply hear the player’s side of the story and make an arbitrary decision based on one meeting. In situations like this, the league puts absolutely no effort into searching for the truth of the matter, but rather hoping that a quick suspension will be able to push the matter out of people’s minds.

After the suspension is doled out by the league, players have the option to file an appeal. For players accused of taking recreational drugs or PED’s, this process is surprisingly thorough. For these situations, a third-party arbitrator jointly selected by both the NFL and the NFLPA is brought in to assess the situation. However, for players accused of personal conduct issues, they appeal their suspensions handed down by the league…to the league. When Tom Brady was suspended for four games by the league because Brady was “probably” “at least generally aware” of the deflation of footballs that did not actually occur, Brady had his appeal heard by Goodell and the league, not an independent third party. It was only through taking the league to court was Brady able to find an independent system.

The NFL’s discipline process itself, just based on two small examples, is inconsistent, flawed, and biased. What’s scary is that their decision-making in regards to punishments is even worse.

Here is a relatively short list of some of the punishments handed down by the NFL over the past decade:

– Ray Rice was suspended for two games for domestic violence after he assaulted his then-fiancee in an elevator. The NFL upped the suspension to indefinitely only after a video became public that graphically displayed Rice punching Janay Rice in the face. The NFL claimed it did not see this video before the original suspension was handed down, which is either a total lie or an example of complete incompetence for not performing a thorough investigation. In addition, multiple sources reported that Roger Goodell was lying when he said that he increased Rice’s suspension because Rice lied to him about the incident in their original meeting. That is false.

– Greg Hardy was suspended 10 games by the NFL for assaulting his girlfriend. They were later forced to reduce their suspension to four games by an arbitrator after it was ruled that ten games was too high of a penalty after the league had just instituted a six-game suspension for first-time offenders of domestic violence.

– Josh Brown was suspended one game by the league in 2016 after an incident of domestic violence that occurred in 2015. After police in Washington state released more information and evidence regarding Brown’s consistent and horrific pattern of abuse that he had inflicted upon his wife, the NFL added another six games to Brown’s suspension.

– Ezekial Elliot was suspended six games by the league for alleged domestic violence against his ex-girlfriend. The woman filed charges with Ohio police, but Elliot was not charged with a crime. Despite the league’s lead investigator recommending no suspension be made, the league chose to implement their six-game-first-time policy. After multiple appeals in federal court centered around the NFL’s disciplinary process, Elliot removed his appeal.

– Plaxico Burress was suspended four games by the NFL in 2008 after shooting himself in the leg at a nightclub and being charged with illegal weapons possession.

– Adam Jones was suspended for three games in 2007 after starting a fight at a strip club that led to three people being shot.

-Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for six games in 2010 for an alleged sexual assault on a woman in a bar. His suspension was later reduced to four games.

– Jameis Winston was suspended by the league for three games following an incident where an Uber driver alleged that Winston touched her inappropriately during a ride in 2016. Charges were never filed, but the league found that Winston’s actions violated the league’s personal conduct policy.

– Richard Sherman was suspended four games by the league in 2012 for PED usage. His suspension was overturned after the appeal revealed serious mistakes in Sherman’s testing process.

Tom Brady was suspended for four games for the Deflategate incident. His punishment was issued after the Wells investigation came through with some pretty concrete and damning accusations, such as that Brady “probably” was “at least generally aware” of the deflation of footballs. Those extremely vague and essentially meaningless findings were more than enough for Goodell to suspend Brady for a quarter of a season. Brady appealed his suspension, only for Goodell to uphold it after a ridiculous appeal hearing that revealed more about Goodell’s utter incompetence than the issue at hand. Brady won his appeal in federal court, only to have it overturned by a higher appeal process based on labor laws.

The inconsistency and random nature of these punishments is astonishing. When looking at these suspensions as a whole, one can conclude that to the league, possibly (not definitely) knowing about footballs being deflated, or taking performance-enhancing drugs, is equivalent to:

  • illegally possessing a firearm
  • sexually assaulting a woman in a bar
  • abusing one’s girlfriend

In addition, possibly (not definitely) knowing about footballs being deflated, or taking performance enhancing drugs is considered to be WORSE than:

  • sexually assaulting an Uber driver
  • inciting a fight in a strip club that nearly cost people their lives
  • dragging one’s unconscious significant other out of an elevator

None of that excuses PED usage or cheating to enhance one’s chances to succeed in a game. If the league outlaws a certain substance and a player takes it, then they deserve the punishment being handed down to them. Similarly, a player deserves to be punished if they are ACTUALLY found to have cheated or tampered (again, emphasis on having been proven to have actually done something wrong).

However, the social and moral inconsistencies with the NFL punishments is beyond absurd. Maybe this is an overestimation of our capacity as a society for empathy and moral consciousness, but shouldn’t it be more important to punish people for abusing others than it is to punish them for looking for a competitive advantage? The league had the right idea with Michael Vick when he was suspended indefinitely for his role in running a dogfighting ring. Why is domestic abuse or sexual assault not treated as negatively?

The league has certainly made efforts to improve its discipline process over the years, but they still have a long way to go. They need to ensure that crimes or violations of the league’s policies are judged APPROPRIATELY. Protecting the integrity of the gameplay in the NFL is important, there’s no doubt about that. These players should be role models of fair play and honesty. However, in a league where career length is short and everything boils down to winning, trying to gain a competitive advantage can, at the very least, be understood. Abusing others or inciting violence? That is indefensible and plays a far more important part of being a role model. The NFL needs to take a fresh look at their discipline process and decide what it truly stands for, and what messages they are trying to send.

Until next time – B$