When the NFL Player’s Association allowed the NFL to take full control of the punishment of players for conduct not contained in the Collective Bargaining Agreement,1 there was an implementation of an all-encompassing personal conduct policy. Specifically, the ability to levy a suspension of almost any length to players for their conduct, whether or not a conviction was entered against them.2
While criminal activity is clearly outside the scope of permissible conduct, and persons who engage in criminal activity will be subject to discipline, the standard of conduct for persons employed in the NFL is considerably higher. It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime. Instead, as an employee of the NFL or a member club, you are held to a higher standard and expected to conduct yourself in a way that is responsible, promotes the values upon which the League is based, and is lawful.
Discipline may take the form of fines, suspension, or banishment from the League and may include a probationary period and conditions that must be satisfied prior to or following reinstatement. The specifics of the disciplinary response will be based on the nature of the incident, the actual or threatened risk to the participant and others, any prior or additional misconduct (whether or not criminal charges were filed), and other relevant factors.
Unless the available facts clearly indicate egregious circumstances, significant bodily harm or risk to third parties, or an immediate and substantial risk to the integrity and reputation of the NFL, a first offense generally will not result in discipline until there has been a disposition of the proceeding (or until the investigation is complete in the case of noncriminal misconduct).
There has been a general rule of thumb during Roger Goodell’s tenure as commissioner that most Conduct Policy suspensions are cut in half on the inevitable appeals process that most players go through.
What Goodell did on August 28th may have a profound impact on the suspensions given to players (and personnel) of the NFL in relation to domestic violence. This is, of course, in response to the NFL’s botching of the Ray Rice situation. Between suspending Rice for just two games and having a joint press conference with Rice and his wife, featuring an apology by her, the victim, in the presence of Rice, the offender, the NFL could have handled things better.
Now, they’ve released a memo to all teams regarding a new “policy” for domestic violence suspensions. With unilateral ability to impose suspensions of any length, will this new policy have any effect on the suspension process as it stands now? The easy answer is kind of.
Here is the relevant text from the new memo.3
If someone is charged with domestic violence or sexual assault, there will be a mandatory evaluation and, where professionally indicated, counseling or other specialized services. Effective immediately, violations of the Personal Conduct Policy regarding assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault that involve physical force will be subject to a suspension without pay of six games for a first offense, with consideration given to mitigating factors, as well as a longer suspension when circumstances warrant. Among the circumstances that would merit a more severe penalty would be a prior incident before joining the NFL, or violence involving a weapon, choking, repeated striking, or when the act is committed against a pregnant woman or in the presence of a child. A second offense will result in banishment from the NFL; while an individual may petition for reinstatement after one year, there will be no presumption or assurance that the petition will be granted. These disciplinary standards will apply to all NFL personnel.
There is one especially important clause in this unofficial amendment to the NFL Conduct Policy.
“[W]ith consideration given to mitigating factors” because this clause gives the implication that there was no change in the policy. The NFL, and by extension Goodell, can still suspend players for relatively any amount of time that they deem necessary.
However, this does supply the NFL with more ammo when going into the appeals process with players that are suspended by this provision. Mitigating factors will undoubtedly be the arguing point of the lawyer or NFLPA representative, but laying out the necessary suspension lengths, the NFL can now offer evidence of a policy that should be applied to all instances of domestic violence.
In the end, the NFL botched Rice’s suspension and the announcement, apology and media fallout of that situation, but they’ve certainly taken a productive step toward fixing it. This announcement probably wasn’t necessary and it is more of a public relations stunt to appease people who think nothing has changed in their suspension choices, but it is both an indicator of a change and a way to get the dogs called off.
How you feel about the moral implications of that decision are secondary to the fact that this was the right decision for the NFL as a whole.