Greg Hardy's Unemployment Is a Sign of Progress for the NFL

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Greg Hardy's Unemployment Is a Sign of Progress for the NFL
Brandon Wade/Associated Press

Greg Hardy will eventually sign with an NFL team.

Bleacher Report's Jason Cole reported Wednesday that teams are starting to snoop around Hardy, albeit anonymously. At some point, a team will offer him a modest deal with few guarantees and lots of incentives. It will be a one- or two-year deal, three at the absolute most, perhaps with some phony-baloney money on the back end. Hardy will receive a few million dollars to play football in the NFL next year.

He will not get the elite pass-rusher money his peers have received, though. And that qualifies as progress for NFL teams. 

An outstanding pass-rusher in his prime without baggage or injuries can fetch $52.5 million guaranteed, as Olivier Vernon demonstrated last week. Add in some questions, and there's less money, but still plenty. Mario Williams decided last year that Rex Ryan's defense did not deserve his full effort and attention, yet the Dolphins just handed him almost $12 million guaranteed. Jason Pierre-Paul will make at least $8.5 million this year to prove he can generate sacks with approximately eight fingers.

Hardy won't get that kind of money, even though he is 27 years old, completely healthy and two years removed from a pair of double-digit sack seasons. He's in the rummage bin with the likes of Junior Galette, and so that's how he'll be paid.

Galette also has a pair of double-digit sack seasons, domestic-violence allegations and an NFL suspension on his docket (plus an Achilles injury that erased his 2015 season). Washington just re-signed him to a one-year, $4.1 million deal. That's roughly what Hardy can expect, though Galette was at least able to turn back from an icy open market toward his previous employer. Hardy doesn't have that option.

In the past, teams would hand the likes of Hardy eight figures and a helmet, waving his behavior away with some PR sleight of hand. Now, teams are so unwilling to overlook Hardy's transgressions that they will only mention their interest in him while wearing trench coats in dark parking garages. 

Times have changed, and our condemnation of domestic violence is making the old NFL policy of excuse-making and PR-spinning bad for business.

Hardy cost himself tens of millions of dollars during his night of alleged violent mayhem in May 2014. But athletes have gotten arrested and lost contracts and endorsements before and always will, because they are humans. It's what Hardy did since he signed with the Dallas Cowboys that has put a massive dent in his earning potential.

Hardy reportedly missed meetings and went back to enjoying the nightlife. He gave stomach-churning interviews about returning to the field "guns blazin'" (Hardy's arrest came after he allegedly threw his girlfriend onto a bed strewn with firearms) and made leering remarks about quarterbacks' wives.

Hardy showed none of the remorse or repentance that would help us gulp down his return to the field. Initially, the Cowboys doubled-down by calling him a leader and talking openly about a long-term contract. They were taking a page from the 1990s Cowboys playbook, compartmentalizing off-field behavior from on-field success or potential and expecting the public to do the same.

This is not the 1990s, though. The Cowboys changed their tune by last month's NFL Scouting Combine. When asked about Hardy's status, head coach Jason Garrett said "Greg Hardy is a free agent," a terse message the rest of the NFL heard loud and clear.

Talented players have worn out their welcomes by missing meetings or making foolish mistakes before. If they were Hardy-level talents, they were usually snatched up by teams eager to give them a chance to "turn over a new leaf" or at least stay on the field and off the police blotter.

Hardy recorded six sacks in 12 games last year. Williams and JPP combined for just six sacks. The ability to rush the passer puts coaches and general managers in a forgiving, paycheck-signing mood.

Elsa/Getty Images

This is much different. If it was just about missed meetings and sideline quarrels, Hardy would at least be on the free-agent tour; instead, he is taking art classes at Ole Miss while his peers hold post-signing press conferences. Teams don't want to be associated with Hardy, in part, because fans no longer tolerate Hardy's actions.

Oh, teams aren't worried about boycotts or picket lines in front of the ticket stands. But they aren't looking forward to putting Hardy's name near the top of a season-ticket letter, either, as the super-secrecy of their interest suggests.

Teams are also wary of the public relations headaches. Owners and coaches don't want to field the tough Hardy questions. Public relations staffers don't want to field the phone calls from concerned local sponsors or pounce on the grenade when Hardy says or does something stupid/horrible. Time and energy equal money and represent a hidden cost for signing the likes of Hardy.

An increasing number of executives, coaches and players are also unwilling to overlook remorseless antisocial behavior in the name of winning a few football games. Twenty years ago, or even five years ago, Hardy would find support from the locker room through the coaching staff as long as he showed up at kickoff and delivered the sacks. That unquestioning support is harder to find these days.

It may sound cynical, but this is how social change works in America. We can't throw every perpetrator in jail or even force them into counseling. We can't protect every victim. But we can raise our voices and tuck away our wallets. Advertisers listen, then corporations listen, then sometimes lawmakers listen.

It has been 25 months since Ray Rice punched his then-fiancee in a casino elevator, 20 months since the NFL tried to shrug it off with a two-game suspension, 18 months since the video went public and opened a nation's eyes. In two years, NFL teams have gone from trivializing domestic violence to punishing perpetrators, not just through suspensions but also the harsh lessons of an open market.

The old adage that fans don't care what players do as long as they win on Sundays rings more hollow each year. You do care. Owners realize you care. That's why there isn't even a whisper or rumor about Hardy right now, even as free agency shifts into its clearance-sale phase.

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

That said, Hardy will eventually sign a contract. Good for him: Domestic violence experts have told me over and over again that there should be a path back to the football field for offenders. That path must go through real remorse, real counseling and a genuine effort (ideally, supported strongly by the team and league) to change. That's precisely the path Hardy and the Cowboys shortcutted through to put themselves in this predicament.

When Hardy signs that modest contract, he'll ditch his WWE shtick and act humble and contrite, even if "act" is the proper term at first.

His coach and owner will speak in stern warnings. Everyone will have economic reasons to at least go through the motions. It's a start. Maybe the changing market will push Hardy and teams away from lip service toward honest efforts to change behavior; the Cowboys certainly learned that turning a blind eye to a player's past is no longer a viable policy.

Heck, a few years from now, teams could be clamoring to sign a reformed, respectable Hardy as a clubhouse mentor, a man devoted to preventing young players from repeating the mistakes he has finally made himself accountable for.

That's the kind of market correction we should all be hoping for.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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