Chris Rainey's Thursday release had as much to do with his arrest as it did his on-field performance.
The Pittsburgh Steelers waived rookie running back/kick returner Chris Rainey on Thursday, just hours after news broke of his early-morning arrest in Gainesville, Fla., for simple assault after allegedly slapping his girlfriend in the face. The action of the team was swift and warranted, and explained by Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert thusly:
"Chris Rainey's actions this morning were extremely disappointing. Under the circumstances and due to this conduct, Chris will no longer be a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers."
It was the right move, to be sure, but to say that it sends a blanket statement to Rainey's now-former teammates that behavior such as this won't ever be tolerated is a bit of a stretch. Instead, it further highlights a longstanding double standard with both the Steelers and in the NFL as a whole—if you get arrested, you'll be cut, unless you're a star.
Just a few months ago, another Steelers rookie—nose tackle Alameda Ta'Amu, who, unlike Rainey, didn't play a single snap this season (but is thought to be the future at his position)—found himself in legal trouble after picking up DUI charges (among others, including felonies) and leading Pittsburgh police on a car chase. For his troubles, Ta'Amu was suspended by the team, then briefly cut, but he finished out his season on the practice squad while his case progressed.
Then there's linebacker James Harrison's 2008 arrest for assaulting his girlfriend. The Steelers declared it a "personal matter" and did not discipline him, though they had also just released another player, backup wide receiver Cedric Wilson, for doing the very same thing.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of rape by two separate women, and though the second accusation—which didn't warrant charges—resulted in a league-imposed suspension, the team chose not to discipline him on their own, choosing instead to let any related legal battles to play out first.
If these don't serve as evidence of a double standard, I don't know what does.
In his rookie season, Rainey had 26 carries for 102 yards and two touchdowns, 14 receptions for 60 yards and returned 39 kickoffs for 1,035 total yards. Those are modest numbers, and they represent why the Steelers released Rainey on Thursday, not his actions in Florida.
Had Rainey been a standout player this season, had he led the team in rushing scores or had multiple return touchdowns, he'd likely receive the treatment that Ta'Amu received, or even Harrison. His value to the team was already clearly quite low if it took them just an accusation—he's not been found guilty of anything, remember—to force their hand as quickly as it did.
Granted, Rainey had character-related red flags heading into this year's draft and had been arrested for felony stalking when he was in college. The Steelers knew what they were getting into when selecting Rainey and may have told him that he'd be done if he had another incident. But even if they did warn him of that prior to the start of the season, it wouldn't have mattered if he had played like a Pro Bowler in 2012—they wouldn't have cut him. The precedent practically dictates it.
If the Steelers—or any NFL team, for that matter—wants to really send a message about how important character and off-field behavior are in the locker room, then they need to release every player who is accused of a crime, no matter how much he's meant to the team on the field, how much money he's paid or how iconic his name. Either that, or every player charged with a crime should stay put until they're legally declared guilty or innocent and cut when found guilty.
However, cherry-picking which player's behavior warrants a public mention of disappointment and little more and which deserves a pink slip sends the message that if you're a star, you're safe. If this marks the beginning of a zero-tolerance policy in Pittsburgh, great; but if it's just another instance of their inconsistent meting-out of punishments, don't expect the next "important" Steeler to commit a crime to get cut, too.