Why Are Pro Sports Leagues In the Punishment Business?

OWINGS MILLS, MD – MAY 23: Running back Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens addresses a news conference with his wife Janay (not pictured) at the Ravens training center on May 23, 2014 in Owings Mills, Maryland. Rice spoke publicly for the first time since facing felony assault charges stemming from a February incident involving Janay at an Atlantic City casino. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY – JANUARY 23: Commissioner of the National Football League (NFL), Roger Goodell, speaks at a press conference announcing the 16 winners of the first round of the $20M Head Health Challenge, a research grant created by the NFL and General Electric to better study and treat traumatic brain injuries, on January 23, 2014 in New York City. Each winner will receive $300,000, with a possible $500,000 more available for six winners of the second round of the challenge, which will be announced in 2015. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY – JANUARY 29: Adrian Peterson attends Jordin Sparks & Jason Derulo Welcome to New York Red, White and Black Super Bowl Party at WIP on January 29, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Joe Kohen/Getty Images) Rob Carr/Andrew Burton/Joe Kohen Getty Images North America

Eight years ago NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced the NFL’s new personal conduct policy and everything in pro sports changed. Up until Goodell’s announced policy in April of 2007 for the entire history of American sports pro sports leagues had never punished players for actions that had nothing whatsoever to do with competition. (Players or athletes were punished for performance enhancing drugs, gambling, or, in a move that I disagree with, non performance enhancing drugs. But never for entirely off the field activities unrelated to their sports.) Goodell’s policy, prompted by a slate of off the field criminal issues, gave the NFL commissioner unquestioned power to discipline players for any incident that reflected poorly upon the NFL’s brand. A central tenet of Goodell’s new policy was that punishments wouldn’t be governed entirely by guilt or innocence in the eyes of the criminal justice system, Goodell would have the right to suspend players even in the absence of convictions or, amazingly, even in the absence of charges themselves. What’s more, Goodell would act entirely on his own as both judge, jury and executioner. He would also hear all appeals to his punishments.

With one fell swoop Roger Goodell replaced the protections of the American judicial system and installed a new system of punishment entirely predicated on the personal decision-making of one man. Meet Roger Goodell, dictator of football. It was a sweeping power grab without parallel in the history of professional sports. And it received nearly universal praise. In fact, the policy was so popular with the public that the NFL’s own player’s association, in a sign of stunning weakness and abdicated leadership, acquiesced to the commissioner’s new powers — which weren’t then permitted by the collective bargaining agreement — and allowed Goodell’s power grab to go unchallenged. Every player meekly submitted to Goodell’s punishments without challenging them either. When the time for a new collective bargaining agreement to be negotiated arrived, the player’s association formally acknowledged Goodell’s power and gave him sweeping authority to punish players for entirely off the field action. It was a stunning coup by Emperor Goodell, the new unquestioned supreme ruler of pro sports.

In short order every other pro sports league fell into line behind the NFL. The NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, and the WNBA have all now suspended players for entirely off the field actions that had nothing to do with the sport itself. (Colleges have also strengthened their punishments for off field behavior, but there is a different set of issues at play here since college athletes are students governed by school rules. Playing college sports is, ostensibly, anyway, a recreational activity and college student-athletes have always been subject to penalty for behavior that has nothing to do with their sport since they’re students first. So that’s a different issue entirely. Playing a college sport is, at its root, a privilege.) Eight years after Goodell’s power grab, it’s now accepted belief that pro sports leagues should punish players for behavior, criminal or otherwise, that is entirely unrelated to their on court or on field performance.

But how did this idea take root? And why do we accept it with so little questions being asked? Since when did pro sports leagues become the police or moral arbiters for our country? Moreover, why do the leagues want this responsibility, since, rather than cleanse the league of blame for a player’s actions, it actually connects the league to the player’s actions more inextricably than ever before. Remember, no one demanded that the NBA take action when Kobe Bryant was charged with rape. No one said the NBA was at fault for Kobe’s charges. The public accepted that the player’s off court behavior and his on court behavior were different spheres. It wasn’t the job of the NBA to punish Kobe Bryant, it was the job of the judicial system.

No longer. Now the public blames leagues when players get in trouble. Indeed, Goodell’s own power grab blew up in his face when he miscalculated the correct punishment for Baltimore Raven running back Ray Rice after a domestic violence incident. Amazingly, the public didn’t vent its anger over Rice’s lenient sentence from the actual criminal justice system, it became obsessed with what Roger Goodell and the NFL knew and when they knew it. Think about how crazy this is, the public was more angry at Rice’s employer for its lenient treatment of domestic violence than it was with our actual criminal justice system’s lenient treatment of domestic violence. The public had so bought into the idea, set forth in Goodell’s own personal conduct policy, that a player’s employer should be meting out punishment that a pro sports league’s decision on player punishment was more severely critiqued than the actual justice system’s. Moreover, the NFL’s own investigation into a criminal matter was held at fault by the public.

Let me repeat that for you in all caps — THE PUBLIC WAS MAD THAT THE NFL, AN ORGANIZATION THAT EXISTS TO PLAY FOOTBALL GAMES, DID AN INADEQUATE JOB OF INVESTIGATING AND PUNISHING DOMESTIC ASSAULT.

Holy hell.

Being mad at the NFL for inadequately investigating domestic assault is as illogical as being mad at McDonald’s for not doing a better job of investigating a murder involving its fry guy. McDonald’s does an okay job of making hamburgers, because, like the NFL, it’s in the business of producing things for paying customers. No one expects any other employer to conduct criminal investigations and levy punishments for non-work behavior. If the CEO of McDonald’s, following a slew of employee arrests, announced that McDonald’s was now going to clean up its image by conducting investigations of employees for what they did outside of work hours and, when their behavior wasn’t appropriate in the mind of the CEO, the restaurant would suspend employees without pay, we’d all think that was absurd, and potentially illegal, right?

Yet that’s exactly what the NFL did. And the public applauded so vociferously that every other pro sports league followed suit. The result is that this is now what every pro sports league does — punishes and investigates players for things that don’t involve their jobs at all.

Hell, what was the first question most people asked when allegations arose that Adrian Peterson beat his children? What’s the NFL going to do about this? Let me reiterate this, our first thought was — WHAT IS THE NFL GOING TO DO ABOUT ADRIAN PETERSON’S POTENTIAL CHILD ABUSE?

How insane is this?

(Inevitably, people want to email and Tweet, “Yeah, but if I did what (x player did), I’d get fired at work.” You’re probably right. But that’s because you’re not as good at what you do as those players are at what they do. They are highly skilled professionals who are demonstrably better at what they do than you are at what you do. You’re probably expendable and replaceable at your job, they aren’t. Regardless of your job, you’ll always be employed so long as your talents exceed your problems. If you have an issue with that, you have an issue with capitalism.)

As a result we’ve somehow turned our pro sports leagues into pseudo-judicial bodies, required to investigate alleged criminal wrongdoings and render justice. And no one even thinks that’s the least bit strange? Have you ever heard anyone question whether this idea makes sense? What in the bloody hell is going on here? Am I totally crazy for thinking that if you’re not in jail you should be eligible to play pro sports in America? Now, individual teams can make their own decisions about whether they want people with criminal issues in their past to represent them — just like every other business in the country can — but why in the world should we allow pro sports leagues to punish players more severely than the actual criminal justice system? And how in the world did the player unions all roll over and play dead when these issues were being debated? Can you imagine what would happen if Tom Cruise got investigated for sexual assault, wasn’t charged, and someone in Hollywood tried to ban him from making movies for a year? What about if Taylor Swift got popped for a tour bus full of psychedelic mushrooms and someone in the music industry announced that her albums wouldn’t be released until she’d served a music suspension of six months?

I mean, this would all be absurd, right?

Yet that’s exactly what we’re doing right now in pro sports and no one even blinks an eye.

What’s the justification?

Please spare me the false morality arguments. Fans are total hypocrites when it comes to their teams winning. If you gave fans this hypothetical — the starting quarterback of your favorite NFL team will be charged with attempted murder and beat the charges this summer. This fall he will lead your team to the Super Bowl and win the game. Would this be okay with you? Just about every fan would be fine with that deal. But even if you aren’t okay with that arrangement and wouldn’t want the accused attempted murderer representing your team on the field, the NFL isn’t in the morality business, it’s in the football business. If playing felons actually hurt the NFL’s business model, it would have happened a long time ago. Point is, it doesn’t. Fans don’t stop watching football because of off-field player actions.   

If you have an issue with inadequate punishments in our criminal justice system, take that up with our criminal justice system. Lord knows our criminal justice system has many flaws that need to be remedied. But getting upset with pro sports leagues for their responses to actual criminal issues isn’t the answer. Worse, it totally misses the larger issue: The criminal justice system received minimal criticism over Ray Rice’s or Greg Hardy’s “punishments,” instead the public was focused on what the NFL was doing. That’s so misguided it boggles the mind. The NFL shouldn’t be in the criminal punishment business, our justice system should.

Back in 2007 Roger Goodell made the first of many truly stupid decisions when he implemented the personal conduct policy and tried to take responsibility for protecting the NFL’s brand. A brand, by the way, that didn’t need any protection. Worse, most of us were so stupid, we applauded him so fervently that every other league implemented similar policies lest they be considered “soft on crime.” (Yes, pro sports turned into politics in the 1990’s, when every politician was afraid of being called “soft on crime” and as a result we overpunished trivial offenses with significant prison sentences). Yet up until now I haven’t heard a single person, or shockingly, a player’s union asking a really big question — why should pro sports leagues be in the business of punishing players for activities that are entirely unrelated to sports?

It’s time that some of us start to ask that question. Because once you do, the answer is readily apparent and contrary to our present trajectory — leagues shouldn’t be punishing players for activities entirely unrelated to sports.

Period.  

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