The NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is set to expire on March 4th and a player lockout is looming. Owners and players are deliberating several key issues, including; an 18 game season, rookie salaries, player safety and retirement and disability benefits. Executive Director of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), DeMaurice Smith, should be contesting the deeply flawed Player Conduct Policy (PCP) as well.
In order to protect the players’ rights, any conduct policy in a professional sports league must be clear, consistent and subject to review by a neutral party. The current NFL PCP falls way short of those standards.
In April 2007, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell instituted the current PCP in response to several highly publicized off-the-field incidents involving NFL players. It states in part:
“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. Persons who fail to live up to this standard of conduct are guilty of conduct detrimental and subject to discipline, even where the conduct itself does not result in conviction of a crime.”
The NFLPA should have been up in arms over the arbitrary policy which tramples on the rights of the players, but then Executive Director Gene Upshaw endorsed it instead.
The above passage is confusing and problematic to the players for several reasons. For starters, it specifies that a player doesn’t need to be convicted of a crime to be punished, which was the standard under the previous PCP instituted by former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, but fails to identify any specific criteria for under what circumstances or to what extent a player can be punished. There’s simply a vague reference to the players responsibility to “promote the values upon which the league is based.”
Without a clear trigger for applying the policy, such as an arrest or conviction, players are subject to the whim of the commissioner, leaving them susceptible to unfair and arbitrary punishment. This lack of guidelines or any reliance on precedent has led to an inconsistency in the punishments rendered.
For example, the late Chris Henry was suspended for the first eight games of the 2007 season after committing six offenses, including; five arrests (marijuana possession, concealed weapons charges, DUI, providing alcohol to minors, and assault and disorderly conduct) and three driving citations.
Compare that to the rap sheet of Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who was arrested 4 times (DUI and Domestic Assault three times), charged two other times while in college, involved in seven additional domestic abuse calls in which no charges were filed, and once fired a gun at his father. The then Denver Bronco received three game suspension in 2008, which was reduced to just one game on appeal.
Several players committed multiple offenses and were not suspended at all, such as, former Lions safety Dwight Smith (arrested for indecent conduct, charged of brandishing a handgun, misdemeanor marijuana position and arrested for pulling a fake gun on fans) and Cowboys safety Gerald Sensabaugh (arrested three times, two of which involved driving with weapons in the car.)
On the other hand, Giants linebacker Michael Foley and and Ravens cornerback Fabian Washington were suspended a game each after just one offense; both were arrested for domestic abuse. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games of the 2010 season, and while the accusations made against him – sexual assault and rape – are very serious, he was never even charged for either alleged incident.
How does the NFL reconcile these discrepancies in punishment? It doesn’t have to because suspended players aren’t provided sufficient recourse. The policy states “Any person disciplined under this policy shall have a right of appeal, including a hearing, before the Commissioner or his designee.” So basically, a player who is suspended by the commissioner has the right to appeal the suspension to the commissioner – which is essentially no right of appeal at all.
In other sports, punishments handed down by the commissioner’s office are subject to review by a neutral arbitrator who ensures that the punishment fits the offense and has the ability to strike down or decrease an overly aggressive or seemingly arbitrary disciplinary action against a player. This prohibits the commissioner from punishing a player excessively in order to send a message to the rest of the league, which seems to have been at least part of Goodell’s motivation for suspending players like Henry and Roethlisberger.
Another problem stemming from the current PCP is that in order for the commissioner to punish a player who hasn’t been convicted of a crime the NFL must rely on its own investigations of reported incidents. Investigators hired by the league are likely not as qualified as law enforcement officers to investigate the facts and reach a proper conclusion as to the player’s culpability. That player is then essentially put on trial by the league without all of the safeguards that come from the judicial system, such as, the ability of the accused to call witnesses on his behalf or contest the evidence against him.
The main issue of contention during the ongoing labor negotiations is the distribution of profits, with player safety a distant second, though DeMaurice Smith shouldn’t stop there. It’s time for the NFLPA to protect the rights of its members by demanding an equitable Player Conduct Policy.