Imagine that you run a company with an employee who was arrested for striking his girlfriend during a domestic dispute, but she dropped the charge before it could be prosecuted. Would you fire the guy or keep him on?
Now imagine that he was prosecuted but found not guilty. Or prosecuted and found guilty and served his time. Would your response be different from that of the situation above?
I’m guessing that your probable course in all three cases would be to ask around about the on-the-job behavior of the employee involved-- his work performance and his relationships with colleagues and customers. Then you’d see if it was a one-time incident or something that had been repeated. If he passed those tests you might be inclined to keep him around even though you found the incident distasteful. You well could conclude that whatever the man did or didn’t do, it wasn’t up to an employer to take the roles of judge and jury by adding a punishment apart from those exacted by the criminal-justice system.
I’m sure you know that the not-hypothetical National Football League and some of its clubs have faced a number of such decisions in recent seasons, involving things like driving offenses and drug possession as well as domestic abuse. Time was when matters like that were swept under the rug, written off as the sort of “boys will be boys” misdeeds that were irrelevant to their on-field activities. Now we’re in a hypervigilant era in which little goes unnoticed, and segments of the population stand ready to howl if they’re displeased by any action.
The upshot has been a hodgepodge of reactive disciplinary calls that, in sum, make little sense. If Commish Goodell and his team-owner employers have any guidelines for their moves—or any rationale—they’re not apparent to this eye.
Let’s start with the NFL’s most-celebrated recent case, that of the Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice. Rice last year was given a two-game suspension after being cited for assault for hitting his girlfriend in an Atlantic City elevator, but when a video of the appalling incident surfaced—and was played repeatedly on national television—an outcry forced the league to backtrack and extend the suspension indefinitely. Rice then was summarily cut (fired) by his team, putting him out of a job.
Not long afterward the criminal case against Rice was dropped when the woman involved refused to press charges and he agreed to submit to counseling. As the season advanced he sued the NFL on grounds he’d been punished twice for the same offense, and a court ordered that his suspension be lifted. He has no criminal record, has apologized publicly and married the woman he struck. Yet convicted by the court of public opinion, he’s unemployed and seemingly employable in his chosen field at age 28.
Now look at Ray McDonald, a veteran defensive lineman. He was arrested twice in 2014, both times on charges concerning violence against a girlfriend, including sexual assault. His team, the San Francisco 49ers, took no action after the first incident but released him after the second. During the off-season he was signed by the Chicago Bears but last May was arrested again for same sort of thing and, again, was released by his team. Last week he was indicted for rape stemming from the May incident. Like Rice he’s currently unemployed, but it is noteworthy that the league never has taken action against him, the most-apparent difference between his cases and Rice’s being that no video camera was rolling during any of McDonald’s alleged transgressions.
Turn next to the shocker of the current pre-season, the punch that broke the jaw of Geno Smith, the New York Jets’ quarterback, by teammate Ikemefuna Enemkpali, a backup linebacker, after a dispute over a Smith debt. Smith required surgery and reportedly could be sidelined for up to two months.
The Jets cut Enemkpali post haste, but before the week was over he was signed by the Buffalo Bills, whose coach, Rex Ryan, coached the Jets last year. Ryan said he’d talked to Enemkpali and was convinced the young man would sin no more. Ryan’s Bills, incidentally, also are the new employer of Richie Incognito, the main perp in the Miami Dolphins’ 2013 teammate-bullying and harassment mess. That ought to be some lively locker room.
No criminal charges have been filed in the Enemkpali-Smith matter because Smith says he won’t pursue them, but the incident took place before witnesses at the Jets’ training facility so it’s hard to see where that rules them out. The blow was described as a “sucker punch” that didn’t result from a fight. Although Enemkpali’s target was a man, not a woman, it was as much an assault as Rice’s smacking his sweetie, and because Smith was a putative starter at the game’s most-important position it had significant football impact. Nonetheless, the NFL has taken no action, and none is said to be pending.
Maybe that’s because the league is up to its elbows seeking to punish Tom Brady, the New England Patriots’ quarterback, for the non-violent offense of causing a bit of air to leak from some footballs used in a last-season playoff game. Goodell came down hard on the Pats’ star, socking him with a four-game suspension, a quarter of the regular season. The issue is in federal court now, and the judge has chaffed at having to spend his time on such trivia, but the NFL’s self-importance knows no bounds, so on it rolls.
In truth, the league has only itself to blame for “Deflategate.” In most other sports opponents share the same game balls, but the NFL lets its teams have their “own” and gives them a week to doctor them before they’re used (for details see my blog of February 15). The stuff that’s permitted exceeds what’s prohibited.
Brady probably did something wrong and should be penalized (15 yards?), but didn’t I read somewhere that the punishment should fit the crime? He’d have been better off cold-cocking a teammate.