Greg Hardy got lucky. Unbelievably, undeniably lucky. So did the Cowboys.
Hardy's suspension was reduced on Friday from 10 games to four. It wasn't because of evidence or innocence. It was because of timing and stone-cold luck.
The NFL recently revamped its domestic violence policy, introducing far more stringent punishments for creeps who attack women. That's the good part. That was needed. You cannot have a sport where players knock out women in elevators or beat them and then throw them on a pile of guns and are not seriously punished. So the league changed its policies. Again: good, needed.
Hardy was suspended for 10 games after the new policy was in place. But he was being suspended for an incident that occurred before it was in place.
So Hardy and his lawyers were able to argue before arbitrator Harold Henderson, a former NFL lead attorney, that 10 games was excessive, because under the old policy, a first offense for domestic violence was a two-game suspension, not 10.
I agree with Goodell in principle that woman-beating dirtbags should be punished as harshly as possible, but his Hardy 10-game suspension was bound to be overturned if the arbitrator had half a legal brain.
Henderson is a brilliant, Ivy League-educated lawyer. I know him well, and he is also an honest, good soul. He wasn't going to rubber stamp something that was clearly an overstep. Reducing the suspension to four games is the legal equivalent of the Michael Jordan shoulder shrug in the Portland series. Roger, I love ya, but a lengthy suspension not allowed by the CBA, well, I can't help you there bro.
Wrote Henderson in his decision, obtained by Bleacher Report:
After consideration of all the record evidence and arguments, I conclude that the Commissioner [Roger Goodell] acted within his authority and properly exercised his discretion in finding that Hardy violated the NFL Personal Conduct Policy. ... I find that the conduct of Hardy clearly violates the letter and spirit of any version of the PCP since its inception, and of the NFL Constitution and Bylaws long before then. The egregious conduct exhibited here is indefensible in the NFL. However, 10 games is simply too much, in my view, of an increase over prior cases without notice such as was done last year, when the 'baseline' for discipline in domestic violence or sexual assault cases was announced as a six-game suspension. Therefore, the discipline of Mr. Hardy hereby is modified to a suspension of four games; all other terms of the discipline letter remain in place.
I know, as Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio points out, the entirety of the ruling is slightly convoluted, but the paragraph above says it all. Goodell couldn't just simply leap from no games or several games for domestic violence to 10.
Hardy is actually lucky on two fronts. First, he's lucky he's not in prison. Second, he's lucky the NFL, until recently, didn't give two damns about domestic violence. He's lucky his incident occurred before the Ray Rice fiasco forced the NFL to care.
Because the NFL didn't take domestic violence seriously for so long, it never instituted a policy with real teeth. When the rash of ugly incidents started, beginning with Rice, the league was caught flat-footed. It wasn't prepared. Society had evolved and knew that losing only two games for assaulting a woman wasn't enough, but the NFL was still stuck in another era.
So it's had to scramble, and the Hardy reduction is an end result of that scramble.
I'm not one of the people who believe that Goodell is punishing more harshly for appearance's sake. I think Goodell gets it and is trying to get the league to change, but the sins of the past are so deep and systemic, it's difficult to change rapidly. On domestic violence, the league is like an aircraft carrier, quickly trying to turn to starboard.
In the future, guys like Hardy will be punished more harshly because the newer polices will be in effect. But for now, Hardy gets lucky.
I'm told by a union source that Hardy and his legal reps are deciding if they should fight this even further by going to federal court. My guess is they will not. My guess is they are popping Champagne corks right now.
Said owner Jerry Jones, via Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News:
Whether Hardy decides to fight this case further or not, he got a gift on Friday. So, too, did the Cowboys.
Hardy being gone just four games, or if somehow it's reduced further, dramatically improves the chances of Dallas again being a massive force in the NFC. The four games Hardy would miss are home against the Giants, at Philadelphia, home against Atlanta and then at New Orleans.
That's not easy, especially because Rolando McClain will also be suspended for those four games, but both will be back for what likely will be their toughest stretch, which starts right after the Saints game: home against the Patriots, at the Giants, then home against Seattle and Philadelphia. That's brutal and Hardy will likely be there.
Mainly, what the suspension reduction does is almost guarantee that Dallas will win the NFC East. The Cowboys' situation is different from a team like the Chargers that lost Antonio Gates to a four-game PED suspension. The Chargers are in the same division with Peyton Manning, and they have to be nearly perfect to beat him.
The Cowboys will face Eli Manning (41 interceptions the last two seasons). Washington has Robert Griffin III (we think) who is…we don't know what he is. Or how good he will be. Philadelphia has Sam Bradford, who sneezes and tears an ACL.
The Giants will likely actually be pretty good, but Hardy—while not a good human being off the field—is one of the premier talents in the sport on it. He's that great a player and presence. Add him and those extra games to an already loaded Cowboys team that came thisclose to beating the Packers in Green Bay last season and, yeah, this almost guarantees a division win for Dallas.
So Hardy got lucky. Really lucky.
And so did his team.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.