An NFL player busted for smoking marijuana, or any other drug listed on the league’s substance-abuse policy, knows exactly what kind of punishment the league can hand down. The first offense is somewhat of a freebie, the second offense lands the player a four-game suspension, while a third instance will result in a year-long suspension.
The rules, and punishment for breaking them, are laid out in a no-nonsense, step-by-step outline in the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse.
As clear as the methods for dealing with substance abuse are in the NFL, an area that’s not so clearly defined is in the realm of domestic violence. What happens to an NFL player if he hits his partner or significant other?
The answer, and punishment, can vary drastically. And that’s a problem.
Why is a decision concerning a domestic-violence arrest such a grey area for the NFL, while any substance-abuse arrest is a black-or-white punishment? It all has to do with the fact that there’s a policy in place for substance abuse, but there's nothing concrete about domestic violence.
Any kind of domestic violence, whether it’s battery or assault, falls under the NFL’s personal-conduct policy, a beefed-up book of rules that gives NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell almost dictatorial power over what happens when a player commits an act that is deemed “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League.”
Goodell’s personal-conduct policy was put into place in 2007, shortly after he took over in his current position. In an attempt to clean up a league that was suffering through a public-relations nightmare, stemming from misbehavior and arrests by its players, Goodell laid out a plan in which his office was able to hand out punishment, even if the authorities couldn’t or didn’t.
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. Discipline may be imposed in any of the following circumstances:
The policy laid out a laundry list of offenses, separated into six bullet points. Domestic violence is among those listed in the first section. But even though it’s listed early, there’s been very little proof that the policy holds every player, and every offense, to the same standard.
Simply put, the personal-conduct policy isn’t universally enforced, and its punishments aren't uniform because everything is basically left up to Goodell's discretion.
Take the NFL’s suspension of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2010. Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault, but he was never brought up on charges. When prosecutors decided not to move forward with the case, Goodell stepped in and handed out the first player suspension under the personal-conduct policy where the player hadn’t been charged with a crime, according to ESPN.com.
Roethlisberger was suspended for six games, a punishment that was later reduced to four games. In Goodell’s letter to Roethlisberger, per ESPN.com, he laid out several reasons why he handed out the suspension.
I recognize that the allegations in Georgia were disputed and that they did not result in criminal charges being filed against you. My decision today is not based on a finding that you violated Georgia law, or on a conclusion that differs from that of the local prosecutor.
That said, you are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct in Milledgeville that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans.
While Roethlisberger’s suspension could be viewed as a positive first step that the league won’t tolerate behavior like this, there have been too many other cases that have gone unpunished.
Former Detroit Lions safety Amari Spievey was arrested in March 2013 for third-degree assault and risk of injury to a child, after a domestic dispute over child support with his girlfriend, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune’s NFL Arrest Database.
According to Justin Rogers of MLive Media Group, charges were ultimately dropped after Spievey completed a court-ordered education program. Spievey didn’t miss offseason workouts with the Lions, but was released in August 2013 because he had fallen too far down on the depth chart.
But he was still allowed to participate, even though, according to police reports, Spievey "put his hand around his girlfriend’s neck and pushed her," all while he was holding his daughter.
Former Seattle Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill was arrested on Jan. 29, 2013, for a domestic-violence infraction, according to Pro Football Talk, and first reported by Mike Ferreri of KOMO-TV in Seattle.
This was Hill’s second arrest in a domestic-violence situation. His first, in 2010, was dismissed without a conviction after Hill completed an 18-month, court-ordered probationary period, according to KIRO - 710 AM in Seattle.
Hill hasn’t played in the NFL since 2012, but that’s not because he was suspended. Hill has tried, unsuccessfully, to work out and sign a contract with a team. The veteran just hasn’t landed an offer.
Already suspended one game earlier in the season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, Hill was suspended in October 2010 for one game under the NFL’s personal-conduct policy.
Seattle LB Leroy Hill has been suspended without pay for team's next game and fined one game check for violating NFL Personal Conduct Policy— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) October 4, 2010
Why wasn’t Hill suspended after his second domestic-violence arrest? In the end, he wasn’t good enough to find work anyway. But should he have been given the chance to even try out for a team?
And now the NFL is facing two more incidents of domestic violence from high-profile athletes.
Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was arrested after an alleged altercation with his then-fiancé in the Revel Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on Feb. 15, according to The Baltimore Sun. On May 1, Rice entered a plea of not guilty on a third-degree aggravated-assault charge and asked to be included in a pretrial intervention program, according to The Baltimore Sun.
It’s programs like the one Rice asked to be included in, that wipe the criminal records clean of first-time offenders. Even if Rice is accepted into, and successfully completes, the program, Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun reported that his case will be reviewed by the NFL under the personal-conduct policy.
Rice might not face jail time for the incident, and his record could be wiped clean. But Goodell could still fine or suspend him. But it doesn’t look like that will happen until Rice gets farther along in the process, potentially even after he completes his intervention program.
All the while, Rice is going about his day-to-day football life and attending Baltimore’s offseason workout program.
Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy was arrested and spent the night in jail, after allegedly assaulting his girlfriend on May 13, according to WSOC-TV in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Police reports state Hardy and his girlfriend got into an alcohol-involved altercation in his apartment, where after she allegedly hit him in the face, he allegedly threw her into a tile tub in the bathroom, then dragged her across the floor of his apartment and choked her on the floor.
WSOC-TV posted audio from the 911 calls and reported quotes listed in a statement from Hardy’s girlfriend.
Hardy picked me up over his head and threw me onto a couch covered in assault rifles and/or shotguns. I landed on those weapons. Hardy bragged that all of those assault rifles were loaded. Landing on those weapons bruised my neck and back. Hardy screamed for his administrative assistant (Sammy Curtis) to come into the room and hold me down.
Hardy and Curtis then took me into the living room area. I wasn't nearly strong or fast enough to escape. I begged them to let me go and I wouldn't tell anyone what he did. They took me out into the hall, pushed me down and went back inside his apartment.
Hardy’s call to 911 painted a different picture, as reported by Will Brinson from CBSSports.com.
I'm running around the table right now. She's trying to hit me with her shoe. Ah s—t. She broke some glass. F—. F—! She's trying to hit me with another shoe. I'm behind the bar. I'm not touching her. My manager's retaining her. She's still trying to get me.
She won't let me close the door. I can't touch her to get her out. She's literally kicking and scratching. My manager's retaining her. She tried to hit me once, she hit me in the face twice. I'm trying to stay away from her. Can you please send somebody to help me?
Witnesses called 911 as well, according to CBSSports.com. Each account revealed a new and different twist to the events that unfolded that night. Not only will the police and prosecutors have to decipher the many statements, so too will Hardy’s case eventually be looked at by the NFL under the personal-conduct policy.
Hardy may have to answer to the league about his alleged altercation with his girlfriend and the stockpile of weapons in his apartment. Hardy turned 10 of those weapons over to the police, according to Bill Voth of Black and Blue Review. But that seems to be only a portion of his arsenal.
It’s all going to take time.
Neither Rice nor Hardy will likely hear about any league punishment for some time. As Carolina head coach Ron Rivera told The Charlotte Observer, the legal system hasn’t finalized anything yet.
“Everything’s pending,” Rivera said on May 17. “I’m not going to talk about that. Besides, this (offseason workout program) is all voluntary.”
What if it weren’t voluntary? What if this were November instead of May? Would Hardy be playing as the courts, and then the league, figured out what to do?
Miami safety Don Jones was fined by the Dolphins just days after sending out a tweet vilifying an on-camera kiss between St. Louis Rams rookie defensive end Michael Sam and his boyfriend, according to John Breech of CBSSports.com.
That punishment was handed down within days, not months.
If Greg Hardy Tweeted a negative word about Michael Sam's kiss -- suspended, fined & condemned. Beat up his girlfriend? Crickets from NFL.— Clay Travis (@ClayTravisBGID) May 14, 2014
There’s no way to compare what Jones did, to the domestic-violence charges Rice and Hardy face. Of course it was far easier to punish Jones for his insensitive tweets. But that, in no way, means the NFL should be happy with the lethargic manner in which it deals with handing out punishment using the personal-conduct policy.
Without a doubt, every player, coach and owner should be considered innocent until proven guilty. And by all means, just like the court system is doing, all due diligence must be meticulously studied.
But Goodell and the NFL don’t need any sort of conviction to hand out a fine or suspension using the league’s personal-conduct policy. If the NFL, as was the case with Roethlisberger, is willing to suspend athletes for “conduct detrimental” to the league without any sort of conviction, why wait?
Weren’t Roethlisberger’s actions just as embarrassing to the NFL a week after they occurred, as opposed to waiting until the court system decided not to proceed with a trial?
Why wait to hand out the punishment?
Wasn’t Rice’s alleged altercation in that New Jersey casino, and Hardy’s in his apartment home, embarrassing to the league just as soon the public found out? Why wait to dole out a suspension or a fine?
Sure, it’s much more simple to wait as the courts decide what to do. The fact that it’s the offseason, and meaningful football won’t be played for months, makes delaying these matters easier to stomach as well. But once again, what if we were a month into the regular season?
Is it right to let athlete’s play while their cases are being heard? Obviously, the NFL is willing to punish “conduct detrimental” to the league without a conviction. Why not just expedite the process?
Should a player, coach or owner be punished under the personal-conduct policy prior to the court system deciding how to proceed with a case?
Taking away due process is a slippery slope. But in the matter of domestic violence, no one should be allowed to hit or harm their significant other and then play a football game the next week.
Guilt or innocence in the court system, doesn’t matter to the NFL when it comes to "conduct detrimental" to the league. If you embarrass the NFL, you may be in trouble under the scope of the personal-conduct policy, conviction or not.
Any form of a domestic-violence incident is almost assuredly going to be embarrassing to the league. It’s about time for the NFL to start coming down harder and faster in these situations.
There’s a chance that Rice may be suspended fewer games (or none at all) after his third-degree aggravated-assault charge, than if he violated the league’s substance-abuse policy twice. Is it really worse to test positive for a banned substance for the second time (four-game suspension) than it is to fight with your fiance and then drag her through a casino, as TMZ reported?
The NFL needs to address domestic-violence among its athletes, coaches and owners. And it’s not going to be easy. There needs to be a swift and inflexible manner in which to deal with domestic violence, and getting off scot-free on a first offense is out of the question.
The league’s personal-conduct policy isn’t enough of a deterrent anymore. The question is: Will a beefed-up domestic-violence policy keep athletes from violence toward their significant others?
That depends on how harsh the penalties are.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.