The Many Inconsistencies in NFL Fines

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IJanuary 30, 2013

Jan 20, 2013; Foxboro, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) slides to avoid a hit from Baltimore Ravens free safety Ed Reed (20) during the second quarter of the AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium.   Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

One of the more perplexing and misunderstood aspects of the National Football League is the definition and implementation of its fine system.

To their credit, both the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell have made efforts to educate the public on the setup's structure. A defined fine schedule, which includes minimum fines for the first and second offenses of a number of infractions, was established and introduced in 2011 after the NFL and NFL Players Association (NFLPA) came to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

However, most still remain in the dark on how the system operates.

Certainly, at least part of that reality results from the inconsistencies in fine implementations from the commissioner's office.

Despite a clear fine schedule, the NFL still fines players different amounts for the same infraction. In fact, over 30 percent of the fines levied in 2012 were significantly outside the allotted schedule.

In other cases, the fine amounts on the schedule do not appear to coincide with the NFL's blossoming player safety concerns. In fact, most of the major fines have significantly decreased since the start of the fine schedule.

The fines also seem to have an apparent bias towards defensive players, both in rule and implementation.

These inconsistencies hurt the NFL's fine system. Until there is a more consistent, streamlined system that is easily understood, the NFL will continue to hear the criticism that goes along with its current fining process.

Understanding the Language

The language and interpretation from the CBA is an important place to start. There must be clear understanding of the fines before any system can be accurately criticized.

In the massive document, the NFL clearly states its power in establishing and executing the schedule of fines.

Article 46, Section 1d of the CBA states:

The 2011 schedule of fines, which has been provided to and accepted by the NFLPA, shall serve as the basis of discipline for the infractions identified on that schedule.

Two important factors can be discovered here.

First, the NFLPA was shown the NFL's schedule of fines before it was officially established. Nothing about the fine system is or was a surprise. The organization that represents the players agreed to the schedule as stated, which is a major point to emphasize when considering both internal and external backlash to most of the fine amounts.

Second, the NFL makes sure to say that the schedule is only a "basis of discipline." The scheduled fines are not set in stone, either year to year or on an individual basis.

These are each explained more clearly further down in Article 46, Section 1d:

The designated minimum fine amounts will increase by 5 percent for the 2012 League Year, and each League Year thereafter during the term of this Agreement.

Year-to-year increases are to blame for the sometimes random fine numbers, such as the $7,875 minimum for first offenders of a face mask infraction.

However, the commissioner's power to impose fines outside the fine schedule is also clearly stated:

Where circumstances warrant, including, but not limited to, infractions that were flagrant and gratuitous, larger fines, suspension or other discipline may be imposed.

Here is where the fines start to become cloudy. Because Goodell has the power to impose any fine he deems fit, regardless of the schedule, inconsistencies can and do happen.

Goodell reinforced his ability to impose the fines and discipline through a 2011 press release on player safety:

The Commissioner may impose fines and other appropriate discipline, up to and including suspension or banishment from the league, for certain misconduct on the playing field, as well as for conduct detrimental to the integrity of or public confidence in the NFL or the game of professional football.

Those who are repeat offenders of a single infraction are also at the mercy of the commissioner. Third offenses present the commissioner with the opportunity to fine the player "substantially," according to the same press release:

A player who is a repeat offender should expect more severe discipline, and fines for third offenses and beyond in the same season or based on prior seasons’ violations will be established on a case-by-case basis, and may increase substantially.

Finally, the NFL can issue a fine or suspension without a penalty on the field being called. The league has eyes on the games to check for other fineable infractions that are missed by officials:

Discipline is not based solely on situations where game officials call fouls. In some cases a violation may be detected in postgame review of video.

Understanding the language of NFL fines is important, mostly because it promotes both the consistency and inconsistency we see within the implementation.

The NFL's Fine Schedule

In 2011, the NFL released its new schedule of fines to the public. Each of the on-field infractions was assigned a minimum fine value, for both first and second offenses.

The complete fine schedule (in 2012 values, added five percent from 2011):

Fine Type       $, 1st min.       $, 2nd min.
Striking/Kicking/Kneeing $7,875 $15,750
Horse Collar Tackle $15,750 $31,500
Face Mask $7,875 $15,750
Leg Whip $15,750 $31,500
Late Hit $7,875 $15,750
Spearing $21,000 $42,000
Impermissible Use of Helmet $21,000 $42,000
Hit on Defenseless Player $21,000 $42,000
Blindside Block $21,000 $42,000
Roughing the Passer $15,750 $31,500
Low Block $7,875 $15,750
Chop Block $7,875 $15,750
Fighting  $26,500 $52,500
Entering Fight Area (active) $5,250 $10,500
Entering Fight Area (inactive) $2,625 $7,875
Unsportsmanlike Conduct $10,500 $21,000
Taunting $7,875 $10,500
Football into Stands $5,250 $10,500
Foreign Substance $7,875 $15,750
Chin Straps $7,875 $10,500
Personal Messages $5,250 $10,500
Uniform/Equipment Violation $5,250 $10,500
Physical Contact with Official $26,250 $52,500
Verbal/Non-Physical Offense Against Official $21,000      $42,000 

An important note from the NFL on the fine schedule:

Discipline in each case will be evaluated on its own facts and circumstances. This will include a determination of whether the infraction occurred “during the normal course of the game” (e.g., was consistent with the competitive tempo, pace, and situation) or “outside the normal course of the game” (e.g., was flagrant, unnecessary, avoidable, or gratuitous).

Combined with arbitrary fines, the NFL also has the ability to determine whether an infraction was made during the "normal course of the game." Intent is subjective, and difficult for one decision-maker to determine. Any time opinion of interpretations is in place, inconsistencies will likely arise.


Most of the fines are self-explanatory, such as roughing the passer, face mask, impermissible use of the helmet and the horse collar tackle. Others need a better explanation for why they are considered in the fine system.

The most misunderstood of those are likely uniform violations and throwing the football into stands.

The NFL has attempted to explain why each is included.

For the sake of both appearance and corporate sponsorship, the NFL has long held firm on the "uniformity" of team uniforms. As is the case in many jobs, the NFL expects employees to follow the stringent rules that are stated in the player conduct policy regarding uniforms. Failure to abide by the guidelines rightfully incurs fines.

Socks have historically been the biggest issue, with many offenders either wearing theirs too high or too low (see Frank Gore). The NFL hasn't been shy in enforcing rules on sock length.

In addition, throwing a football into the stands can create a fan-control issue that the NFL attempts to avoid with the fine. When a ball is unnecessarily entered into the fan area, liability concerns arise. However, the NFL does specify that handing a ball to a fan (such as after a touchdown) does allow the commissioner to avoid the implementation of a fine.

Where Does the Fine Money Go?

Many speculate that the NFL uses the fining system as another form of revenue. Not true.All money assigned via fines (both against coaches and players) is either donated to charity or used to support the NFL's retired players.

The NFL Communications staff provided that information to the public in 2010:

All on-field fine money collected by the NFL is used for charitable purposes. These funds have been used to support retired player programs, including the NFL Player Care Foundation and NFLPA Players Assistance Trust; disaster relief initiatives; and health-related charities.

David Krichavsky, the NFL's director of community affairs, expanded on that answer to the Associated Press (via the Belleview News-Democrat):

Player fine money is used to support retired player programs as well as other charitable causes as agreed upon between the NFL and NFL Players Association...Every letter notifying the player of a fine indicates where the fine money goes. I have gotten feedback from players who don't like writing the check to the NFL, but they are pleased to know it does not go back into our coffers but to charitable organizations.

Among the charitable foundations that have received fine money from the NFL are the Brian Piccolo Cancer Fund, the Vincent T. Lombardi Cancer Research Center, the ALS Neuromuscular Research Foundation, the NFLPA Player Assistance Trust and the Red Cross (for disaster relief in Haiti).

While players are not allowed to specify which charities the money goes to, the NFL does not benefit from the fine money. Even if they did pocket the money, the three-year average of fine money is only around $3 million per season.

Fine Inconsistencies

Despite a clear schedule, the NFL levied a number of inconsistent fines in 2012.

Here's a small sampling of the maddeningly inconsistent decisions:

  • Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was fined $21,000 for physical contact with an official (under the minimum amount for a first offender, which is scheduled at $26,250), but Washington Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall was docked $30,000 for a verbal offense with an official. A first offender for Hall's infraction is scheduled to be fined just $20,000. Yet he was fined $10,000 more, while Newton got off with a fine that was below the minimum.
  • Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed was originally suspended one game (he ended up with a $50,000 fine after appeal) for multiple (three or more) infractions of illegal hits, but Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller received just a $25,000 fine after his fifth illegal hit in two seasons. Why was Reed slapped with a one-game ban, but Miller was docked half of Reed's eventual fine? Would James Harrison not have been suspended if he put together a string of five infractions in 24 months?
  • Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick was fined $7,875 for a low block on an interception return, but Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford avoided a fine on the exact same infraction. Both were flagged. How can the NFL fine one but not the other? Why not remain consistent?
  • Houston Texans linebacker Tim Dobbins was fined $30,000 for a roughing the passer penalty that gave Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler a concussion. The vicious hit was Dobbins' first offense.
  • Earlier in the season, however, New York Jets guard Matt Slauson received just a $10,000 fine for an illegal chop block that ended the season of Texans linebacker Brian Cushing. Also in 2012, Texans tackle Duane Brown hit Green Bay Packers linebacker D.J. Smith illegally, but he did not receive a penalty or fine. Smith tore his ACL on the play and was lost for the season.
  • Chicago Bears receiver Earl Bennett was fined twice in 2011 for wearing shoes that did not comply with the NFL's uniform policy. He was fined $15,000 total and later warned he would be ejected from a game the next time he broke the rule. When Bennett wore orange shoes again in 2012, he was simply fined $10,500. Why did the NFL treat Bennett's like a second offense when it was his third?
  • Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Kevin Elliott and Texans safety Quintin Demps were involved in a fight that required a referee to break up, but neither player received a fine. On 13 other occasions in 2012, the NFL fined players for fighting. The NFL can classify fights?

More general inconsistencies:

  1. The NFL fined players 63 times outside their clearly defined schedule in 2012. Nearly 25 percent of those irregular fines were below the minimum amount set by the schedule. Why even have the minimum standard if the NFL is going to routinely go under it?
  2. Uniform violations averaged more per fine in 2012 than both face mask and unsportsmanlike conduct.
  3. Despite having the same guidelines and fine schedule, fines for impermissible use of the helmet averaged almost $4,000 more than hitting defenseless players.
  4. Late-hit infractions averaged just over $10,000 per fine. Chop and low blocks—both of which are very dangerous to defenders—averaged under $10,000 per fine.
  5. Prior to 2011, the NFL generally fined players $40,000 to $50,000 for illegal hits to the head or head area. The new schedule has dropped those totals significantly, whereas Reed's $55,000 fine was far and away the highest fine of 2012 for such a hit. Player safety?

Bias in the Fine Schedule

Is the NFL's fine system biased towards one side of the ball? It certainly appears so.

According to our study, the NFL issued nearly 200 total fines to players in 2012. Of those, 135 were tied to penalties that are frequently called on only the defensive side of the football. Also, almost 70 percent of the total fine money was levied on defensive players.

Furthermore, eight infractions on the NFL's fine schedule is focused on defense. The offensive side has just two: the low and chop block.

This obvious bias in the structuring and implementation of the fine schedule makes it unlikely that the defensive side of the football will ever avoid being responsible for the majority of the fines in a given year.

Protecting players is one thing, but defensive players have a strong case for the bias of fines against their side of the game.

ExaminingSome Questionable Fines in 2012

Tom Brady/Frank Gore

Many wondered how New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady could get fined ($10,000) less than San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore, who was docked $10,500 for wearing his socks too low. This scenario has a simple explanation.

Brady was fined under "Striking/Kicking/Kneeing," which comes with a $7,875 fine for a first offense. Gore was committing a second offense for a uniform violation. The penalty for that is $10,500. 

In reality, Brady was fined more than the minimum for his dangerous slide, while Gore was fined right on schedule. Debating the merits of cleats-up over low socks is the inconsistent debate, at least in terms of player safety.

Ndamukong Suh

In November, Ndamukong Suh was docked $30,000 after his leg swung around and either intentionally or unintentionally struck Texans quarterback Matt Schaub in the groin.

The NFL viewed the video and somehow determined intent. Thanks to Suh's history with fines, the NFL was able to somewhat easily levy a large fine for the incident. But once again, the NFL seemed to pull a number out of its hat for an incident that very well could have been an accident.

Clearly, the NFL has made major strides towards fixing its very flawed system of fines.

A set fine schedule has made it much easier to understand why a certain amount is being tied to a certain infraction, but the NFL still frequently decides to venture outside that schedule to levy fines upon its players. Such inconsistencies make it difficult to understand the difference between a $25,000 fine for a helmet-to-helmet hit and another that costs a player $30,000.

The arbitrary fine numbers assigned to each infraction also seem to be counter-intuitive to a player safety culture the NFL is attempting to build in the sport.

Until these problems are solved and the system becomes more transparent, the NFL will continue to struggle with the perception of its fining process. This past season was just another example of why that perception remains clouded for most of its fanbase.


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