Punish First, Ask Questions Later: The Future of NFL Suspensions


The past few years, we, the collective fan base of sports, has looked at the NFL as the gold standard for handing out punishment swiftly and justly. Commissioner Roger Goodell, Revenue Roger if you’re a Bill Simmons reader,1 has an unofficial set of suspensions for various infractions. Goodell knows that the player is going to appeal. He knows the appeals process will almost uniformly cut the original suspension in half.

We all looked at this streamlined and quiet process as quality. Then the worst thing that could have happened happened. The public got a video of one of the all-too-common domestic abuse allegations. The Ray Rice incident happened.2

I’m going to get off topic for a quick paragraph. I don’t condone Rice’s actions. In fact, I find them quite terrible. BUT, I’m very confused by the public reactions to this event. The original video was appalling to me. We saw Rice drag his unconscious wife out of an elevator and he later admitted to domestic abuse. My confusion is where the renewed outrage came from after seeing the video. I didn’t like the contents of the second video. The thing is, they showed the terrible thing that I understood happened the whole time. This didn’t alter the ledger for me. This affirmed my assumptions and justified my thoughts on the incident. Based on the reaction from the public, it seems that the viewing of the act was more egregious than the actual act. I think this is something society needs to re-evaluate. However, I digress.

Getting back on topic, we can all see the backwards principals that ruled the suspension system in the NFL. It was mostly based on public relations objectives, revenue protection, and building a sense of justice served.

We’ve had people come out and describe their actions in this investigation, showing the actions likely taken in most of these investigations. There are people whose job it is to seek out this videos. There are allegations that the organization tried to bribe the player to keep quiet. There’s evidence that the NFL knew about the video long ago, despite their assertions that they were blissfully ignorant of it. These actions are fairly likely par for the course.

Goodell and the NFL paid lip service to a new domestic abuse policy. The effectiveness of this has been greatly and fairly questioned. But they did it. After reading all this, we get to the question we need to ask. Is a policy to suspend people within the league for allegations the type of policy that should be implemented?

In a long process, Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, was suspended to what is essentially the maximum of an NFL owner for pleading guilty a misdemeanor of driving while impaired.3

Now we have teams taking matters into their own hands, for the aforementioned reason of public relations. The current fan atmosphere has shown the danger of employing a player that has their name anywhere near a domestic violence charge. Corporations are threatening to cut off agreements with teams. Fans are demanding the figurative heads of the players accused.

The facts in Greg Hardy’s situation make suspending a player – even if it is a paid suspension by the team placing them on an exempt roster list – much more palatable even if they are based on allegations. The same is true for Jonathan Dwyer, Ray McDonald, and especially Adrian Peterson. The evidence in most of these situations is astounding and fairly damning.

What’s the purpose of previously requiring a conviction, not an indictment or allegation, before punishing a person – either criminally, civilly, or through work suspensions? That constantly cited and loved idea of due process. The idea that you have a chance at your day in court, literally or in the case of the NFL suspensions, figuratively.

Again, the facts in many cases we’ve seen are fairly damning. It feels right to assume guilt. But it’s an extremely slippery slope. One that the NBA is now dealing with in regards to the owners. The Sterling situation was fairly cut and dry decision for most people. But as lesser, but still hurtful, allegations come out against other owners, how far does this sliding scale slide before it isn’t enough to force someone out?

It is only a matter of time before an NFL player gets suspended for the whole year by the NFL for allegations against him that feature startling “facts” only to be found innocent completely and finding out that the allegations were almost completely fabricated. Now the fact of whether the player was paid during this suspension seems to be the key question. But is it? For many players, football is their life. Even if you’re paid, being suspended from what defines you without just cause is a terrible situation.

Maybe that is something the NFL, its sponsors, and its fans are okay with to make sure that the suspensions for players that are completely guilty will stand. But that stands in contrast with what we’ve decided is important as a society. That you can’t be punished, criminally or civilly, until you’ve been proven guilty (there are of course various exceptions to this, but those are generally extreme). We want to protect the innocent to such a degree from false allegations that we may let some of the guilty slip through the cracks.

If this path continues, the NFL will implement an opposite ideal. That punishing the guilty swiftly is more important than protecting the innocent from false accusations. Is this right? I lean toward no. Is this likely? I lean toward yes.

The future of the NFL is in flux currently. Bill Barnwell can imagine a new league stepping up more than ever. (That’s not to say that it’s likely for a new league to step up). The discipline system is at the forefront. One thing is certain though, change is coming for better or worse.

  1. An entertaining and useful take on a lot of this stuff can be seen on Grantland 

  2. The overall legal sides of this situation were summed up well on Above The Law here and here for both sides. 

  3. Jim Irsay suspension per ProFootballTalk 

About the author: Colby Rogers

Colby is the Editor-in-Chief, Founder and Lead Contributor to Other League. Also a law student focusing on Labor & Employment law and intersections with law and sports. You can find him on Twitter via @Colby_OL.