At GOOD, Megan Greenwell points out something strange in the course of meditating about our obsession with Michael Vick’s time in jail: that neither the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, nor the National Hockey league appear to have a consistent policy on how to handle players who are charged with driving while intoxicated.
It’s an interesting question, how it’s appropriate for the leagues to regulate the behavior of their players, given that the sports industry relies on both the physical safety and health of the players, and the willingness of fans to emotionally invest in both franchises and individual players. I think there’s a fairly clear case for high penalties for behavior that endangers players’ well-being. If you’re caught driving drunk, the law can and should punish you for putting yourself in a situation to hurt other people, and it seems entirely reasonable that your employer would punish you for putting yourself in a position where you’d be unable to fulfill the terms of your contract by hurting yourself.
I think the line for behavior professional sports teams should punish for endangering fans’ enthusiasm is a lot less clear, both because fans have totally different standards for what’s acceptable or what’s outside their comfort zone. Legally, of course, people who are charged with crimes are innocent until prove guilty, but do we think there’s an obligation for employers to abide by the same standard? Especially when sports teams may feel compelled to make decisions in advance of the legal process? And what are the requirements for making restitution if an employer suspends or penalizes an athlete for behavior the legal system later exonerates them of, or for charges that are later dropped? You can’t give Ben Roethlisberger back the games he was suspended for after being accused of sexual assault, and even if the allegations were withdrawn, I’m not sure he should get them back. There’s a difference between losing your freedom and losing your reputation, but I’m not sure how penalties ought to work in the space in between.