Ben Roethlisberger, Albert Haynesworth and the NFL Personal Conduct Policy

Rebecca RollettContributor ISeptember 2, 2011

GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 02:  Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth #92 of the Washington Redskins stands on the sidelines during preseason NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on September 2, 2010 in Glendale, Arizona.  The Cardinals defeated the Redskins 20-10. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Ben Roethlisberger was asked how he feels about how Roger Goodell determines punishments for players under the NFL Personal Conduct Policy.  His answer: "As delicately as I can say it, yes. Maybe at some point in my career, I'll speak up more on it, but as of right now I'll just say yeah."

Ben isn't the only one who has problems with the policy. The obvious reason that it's being debated at this moment is the news about Albert Haynesworth's suspension. In other words, there isn't one. ESPN reported a week ago that "... Goodell is not expected to hand down any further discipline to Haynesworth."

The commissioner's office issued a statement that the matter was still under review. But let's get real. Goodell has known about this for some time, and has now known for a week and a half that Haynesworth pleaded no contest to the charges against him.

The charge to which he pleaded was simple assault rather than sexual assault, a lesser offense than the original charge.

Let's see what the NFL Personal Conduct Policy would have to say about that.


While criminal activity is clearly outside the scope of permissible conduct, and persons who engage in criminal activity will be subject to discipline, the standard of conduct for persons employed in the NFL is considerably higher. 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:  

Criminal offenses including, but not limited to, those involving: 

  • The use or threat of violence; domestic violence and other forms of partner abuse; theft and other property crimes; sex offenses; obstruction or resisting arrest; disorderly conduct; fraud; racketeering; and money laundering; 
  • Criminal offenses relating to steroids and prohibited substances, or substances of abuse;
  • Violent or threatening behavior among employees, whether in or outside the workplace;
  • Possession of a gun or other weapon in any workplace setting, including but not limited to stadiums, team facilities, training camp, locker rooms, team planes,buses, parking lots, etc., or unlawful possession of a weapon outside of the workplace;
  • Conduct that imposes inherent danger to the safety and well being of another person; and
  • Conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL players.

Here are some of the mitigating factors in determining a punishment:

Unless the case involves significant bodily harm, a first offense will generally not result in discipline until there has been a disposition of the proceeding (or until the investigation is complete in the case of employee or workplace misconduct). 

With respect to repeat offenders, the Commissioner may impose discipline on an expedited basis. In such cases, the timing and nature of the discipline will be determined by the Commissioner based on several factors including but not limited to: the severity of the initial charge and later charge; the facts underlying the later charge; the length of time between the initial offense and later charge; and the player or employee’s compliance with counseling and other programs.

Following a full investigation and/or resolution of the proceedings, the Commissioner will review the matter and make any appropriate adjustments. 

(Emphasis mine) 

Now that we know all that, let's see how even-handed the Commissioner appears to be.

Ben Roethlisberger received a six-game suspension, reduced to four games for, I suppose, good behavior. He also had to undergo extensive psychological evaluation. This too is covered in the policy:

Apart from any disciplinary action, persons arrested, charged or otherwise appearing to have engaged in conduct prohibited under this policy will be required to undergo a formal clinical evaluation. Based on the results of that evaluation, the person may be encouraged or required to participate in an education program, counseling or other treatment deemed appropriate by health professionals.

The evaluation and any resulting counseling or treatment are designed to provide assistance and are not considered discipline; however, the failure to comply with this portion of the Policy shall itself constitute a separate and independent basis for discipline.  

This makes sense. You want to find out why the person did what they did and whether they are likely to do it again. If so, you want to prevent the next incident if at all possible, an outcome desirable both to the NFL and, presumably, the offender.

But to return to the specifics of the Roethlisberger case, what was the Commissioner's basis for suspension? He was never charged with a crime.

The Georgia prosecutor in the Milledgeville incident was clearly exceedingly disappointed that he did not possess sufficient evidence for a case. But as much the he would have liked to charge Roethlisberger, he didn't.

However, Roethlisberger also had a previous accusation.

Furthermore, he had a history of blowing off reporters, being rude to wait-staff, and generally behaving like an entitled ass. So what would the actual charge be?

A labor lawyer told Vinnie Richichi of The Fan sports radio in Pittsburgh that the offense for which Goodell suspended him was "providing alcohol to a minor."

In an article announcing the suspension, ESPN writers stated: "Roethlisberger is the first player suspended by Goodell under the conduct policy who hasn't been arrested or charged with a crime."

Since Albert Haynesworth pleaded no contest to an assault charge, thus stating that he didn't contest the prosecutor's version of the facts, one would assume that he would be suspended. But if no suspension is forthcoming, we then look at the mitigating factors.

As the discerning reader studies the policy, the words "a first offense will generally not result in discipline" jump out "Aha!" said discerning reader says to herself. "Haynesworth must have previously been a model citizen, and the Commissioner is cutting him some slack."

A brief perusal of his history sends this theory right out the window.

Haynesworth has a pretty long rap sheet. A year after he was drafted by the Titans, who supposedly got a steal because of "maturity questions," he kicked center Justin Hartwig during training camp. Apparently he was just warming up.

During a game in 2005, he went for the opponent's center instead. "The 6-foot-6, 320-pound Haynesworth stomped on Dallas Cowboys center Andre Gurode's head Sunday, knocking off his helmet, then kicked and stomped his face. Gurode needed 30 stitches to repair the cuts left by the tackle's cleats..."

He received a then-unprecedented five-game suspension.

He was also suspended for four games in 2010. In this case, the suspension was by the Washington Redskins.

They had signed him the previous year to a seven-year, $100 million contract, with what was then an NFL record of $41 million in guaranteed money. The suspension was given for "conduct detrimental to the team." 

So, knowing that he was surely going to be cut at the end of the season, you would assume that Haynesworth would now cleave to the straight and narrow. And once again you would be wrong. The alleged assault occurred this February.

Haynesworth also had a "road rage" incident in February that has been settled out of court. This is not his first road rage case, either.

Note that these incidents occurred prior to the NFL lockout. Haynesworth was most definitely under the jurisdiction of the NFL when they happened.

Given all of these facts, it is really difficult to understand how the NFL could turn a blind eye to Haynesworth's antics.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were the only team to vote not to ratify the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. As Ralph Paulk reported, "With the majority of the league's 1,900 union members ratifying the 10-year deal, the Steelers seemingly cast only a symbolic no vote to protest their uneasiness with a sometimes-ambiguous conduct policy." 

Although there are provisions in the new CBA for an appeal process, the commissioner of the NFL still has virtually unlimited power to fine or suspend players. Goodell does not appear to use this power in an even-handed fashion. Whatever criteria he is using to make his judgments, fairness is clearly not one of them.

I personally think that the Roethlisberger suspension was the best thing that could have happened to him. It was apparently the wake-up call that he needed. Both Ben and the team benefited.

But Goodell set a precedent that he ignores at his peril. If the bar is set that high, surely the appropriate action in the Haynesworth case would be a 10-game suspension. Not to discipline him at all is a travesty of justice.

Vinnie Richichi asked whether women fans felt that Haynesworth apparently getting no punishment was somehow an insult to women. Speaking strictly for myself, I would say that it isn't an insult to women. It is an insult to anyone who cares about fairness.


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