Aldon Smith Suspension Shows Real Progress in NFL's Handling of Off-Field Issues

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterNovember 18, 2015

September 20, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders defensive end Aldon Smith (99) during the first quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at O.co Coliseum. The Raiders defeated the Ravens 37-33. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

What we are seeing with the NFL now is a league getting a lot of its disciplinary punishments right. You may not want to believe that, but it's true. Two cases in point: Aldon Smith and Johnny Manziel.

Aldon Smith has been, quietly, one of the league's largest headaches, a sort of Greg-Hardy-lite. The list of accusations is long and troubling: arrested for DUI, hit-and-run, vandalism in one incident; accused of telling a TSA agent at Los Angeles International Airport, after being pulled aside for additional screening, that he had a bomb; other DUI arrests; weapons charges.

There've been five arrests since 2012. Not convictions, but the arrests were troubling enough. One arrest is a singularity, a few arrests prompt head-shaking, but five is a trend.

The NFL—very deliberately and methodically, I'm told by an Oakland team source—looked into each incident using its internal investigators. The conclusion was that Smith should be suspended for one year. ESPN's Adam Schefter first reported the news Tuesday.

There is a substance-abuse element to this as well. The NFL said in its statement distributed to reporters that Smith was suspended because he violated the league's substances-of-abuse policy, which covers alcohol-related incidents like his. Smith appealed the suspension and lost.

"The NFL really had no choice," said the Raiders source, who, like other team officials, was appraised by the NFL of the suspension.

So, to make it clear: Smith was arrested for DUI and other crimes. The NFL investigated and, based on its findings, punished Smith. The new system worked.

There was a time when the NFL's credibility on this type of issue was destroyed. It was destroyed by the handling of cases like Ray Rice's. I'm seeing the league rebuild that trust. It's not perfect. It's not there yet, but it's damn close.

The league got the Manziel situation correct, demonstrating another important aspect of discipline. The NFL wasn't going to go after Manziel just to do it.

I'm not sure what happened in that car between Manziel and his girlfriend that day, but I actually believe what she allegedly initially said, that Manziel pushed her head into the car window.

The problem is she recanted her statement (also not uncommon in domestic-violence cases). The NFL interviewed her, Manziel and law-enforcement officials, according to its statement released Tuesday:

Consistent with the procedures of the league’s Personal Conduct Policy, we have examined the available evidence regarding the recent incident involving Johnny Manziel. Our investigation included a thorough review of information from law enforcement and our own interviews with multiple individuals, including the two involved in the incident. Based on the information gathered, we have concluded that there is an insufficient basis on which to take disciplinary action. In all cases of this nature, our concern under the Personal Conduct Policy goes well beyond the issue of discipline, and we have made comprehensive professional resources available on a confidential basis.

Translation: We couldn't prove he did anything.

"I appreciate the NFL's  diligence and discretion in reviewing a situation that was both personal and embarrassing," Manziel said in a statement. "Colleen and I cooperated fully with the NFL's process and completely support their goals of making sure that every family under their umbrella is safer and more secure.

Don Wright/Associated Press

"I'm grateful that the review was so thorough and fair that there should be no question left in the public mind about what actually happened. I'm looking forward to focusing my energies on our start against the Ravens and bringing in a win for our fans in Cleveland."

In a really strange sort of way, this, too, is progress. There were times when the NFL made up its disciplinary process as it went along, often using public reaction as a gauge. The fact the NFL didn't punish Manziel for public relations purposes bolsters the league's credibility.

It's been a slow, arduous process for the NFL to climb from the primordial sludge that was its handling of the Rice case to where it is now, in a new day.

Before, it was difficult to trust the NFL in how it handled these types of issues. Not just the frightening cases, but also instances like Deflategate.

The NFL lost its credibility and to some, particularly guys named Brady and Kraft, the league will never get that trustworthiness back.

But I'm seeing a different NFL. On these issues, at least. A league humbled by embarrassing failures. And I mean specifically the league office. There are still team-based enablers and the thick-skulled, like Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who allows a despicable alleged woman-beater like Hardy to populate his locker room.

In the league office, I think a lesson has been learned. A brutal one, but it's been learned.

The Smith and Manziel cases show it.

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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