National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell instituted new league-wide policies for domestic violence and sexual assault in a letter to owners Thursday. The policies, put in place after widespread criticism of Goodell’s two-game suspension of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, include standard punishments for players involved in domestic violence or sexual assault: six games for a first offense and a supposed lifetime ban for a second.
“I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn’t get it right,” Goodell wrote of the Rice suspension. “Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.”
The discipline standards are not the only aspect of the new policy. In addition, it lays out plans to expand education of players and personnel on violence against women, it includes important goals of providing more assistance to spouses and significant others of its players and organization personnel, and it says the NFL will attempt to expand its role on education about the issue in lower levels of football and in broader communities as part of the league’s public service work (USA Today obtained a full copy of Goodell’s letter that further spells out those aims).
Addressing domestic violence and sexual assault in the NFL is important, and not just because of recent cases involving Rice and Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy. It is a widespread problem, so much so that after the muder-suicide committed by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher in 2012, a Slate investigation found that 21 of the league’s 32 teams had at least one player who had been accused of or investigated or arrested on charges of domestic abuse or sexual assault.
Because of that, groups that have called on Goodell and the NFL to take more action on violence against women hailed the new policy, and the non-disciplinary parts of the policy certainly constitute progress. And yet, other aspects of the policy are sufficiently vague as to raise questions about how it will be implemented. And the manner in which Goodell developed it, along with questions about its implementation, should cause concern about whether this will find success in its mission to address a very important problem or instead turn into another battle over the disciplinary powers of the commissioner’s office.
The most interesting aspect of the new standards is that it is unclear what they actually change. Goodell wrote in the letter that the new standards fall under the league’s Personal Conduct Policy, which already gives the commissioner unilateral authority to punish players how he sees fit for any off-field issue (other than drugs, which are subject to collectively bargained punishments). There was nothing stopping Goodell from suspending Rice for six or eight or thirteen games had he wanted to. The commissioner, in fact, had already handed a six-game suspension to Ben Roethlisberger in 2010 after the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback faced sexual assault allegations, though it was later reduced to four. Just like the Conduct Policy, the new standards are vague about when exactly a player will be subject to suspension (a source told ESPN that discipline will only occur after the “adjudication of a player’s case, such as conviction or plea agreement,” which is pretty much how the policy works now, most of the time), and its allowances for the consideration of “mitigating factors” and “longer suspensions when circumstances warrant” make it clear that six games is a suggested starting point from which the commissioner is free to deviate in either direction rather than an absolute standard. Further, the lifetime ban isn’t necessarily a lifetime ban: it’s a one-year suspension after which a player can file for reinstatement, with Goodell again making the final call.
Which gets us to the second most interesting — and potentially problematic — aspect of the new standards, which is that they fall under that Personal Conduct Policy. As such, they weren’t collectively bargained, which isn’t shocking but does raise questions about how involved the NFL Players Association was in the development of this policy. Goodell’s letter says he consulted the NFLPA; ESPN’s report indicates that league and union lawyers spoke. But it is unclear how involved the union was in the process or whether it agreed to the harsher punishments, and the union’s cautious tone in a statement about the policy suggests it wasn’t as involved as it could have been.
“We were informed today of the NFL’s decision to increase penalties on domestic violence offenders under the personal conduct policy for all NFL employees. As we do in all disciplinary matters, if we believe that players’ due process rights are infringed upon during the course of discipline, we will assert and defend our members’ rights,” the union said in the statement.
The union’s involvement and the role of the Personal Conduct Policy are important, because the Policy has been a bone of contention between the NFLPA and the league office before. The NFLPA has, at times, taken issue with Goodell’s use of the unilateral authority the policy grants him, arguing that there is a double standard for players and executives or front office employees. Whether or not those claims are legitimate, the result has been intermittent squabbling over the league’s disciplinary powers.
By leaving this all under the Conduct Policy, the door is open for that bickering to continue, especially if consideration of “mitigating factors” results in harsher punishment for players than it does for owners or executives. And the vagueness of parts of Goodell’s letter don’t help. This is still all up to him, so the discipline could be just as erratic. In other words, between the squabbling over the Conduct Policy and the lack of big changes, these new disciplinary standards might not go all that far toward the stated goal of achieving major progress on domestic violence or assault.
If the NFL and its union were serious about the issue, they would sit down and hammer out a specific policy with specific punishments for players convicted of such crimes. That wouldn’t have been easy, and it certainly would not have been expedient for a commissioner who apparently wanted to push out a letter that admits failure on the Rice suspension and answers calls for action before a new season begins. What it would have done, though, is ensure that the league and the players were in concert when a new policy was unveiled, and that rather than “standards” enforced by a single entity with the authority to lean on every vague caveat he inserted into an opaque policy, the unveiling actually included something concrete. We can debate whether the NFL should or shouldn’t have a role in our collective moral debates, but if it was going to weigh in, making the policy clear-cut, transparent, and absent the potential for more disputes over the Conduct Policy would have demonstrated that the league and its players were taking this problem seriously.
Overall, the message the new policy sends is strong, and if the NFL follows through on some of the non-disciplinary plans Goodell laid out, it will be a major step in the right direction. But for now, all it really seems like is a message, and the manner in which the league chose to send it is reason enough to be skeptical that it will actually achieve the substantial progress it promises.