clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Broken Conduct Standards of the NFL

A look at the application of the NFL personal conduct policy and its implications for the future of football and society as a whole

Rob Carr

Disclaimer: The assertions and opinions contained in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of editors or staff, or any affiliates.

Part I: Breakdown of Suspensions

"I understand what they're doing. Some of these new-jack kids act like they're walking on water. Sometimes, they need to be slapped in the face to wake up."

- Warren Sapp

"While criminal activity is clearly outside of the scope of permissible conduct, and a person who engages in criminal activity will be subject to discipline, the standard of conduct for persons employed in the NFL is considerably higher. It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime. Instead, as an employee of the NFL or a member club, you are held to a higher standard and expected to conduct yourself in a way that is responsible, promotes the values upon which the League is based, and is lawful."

So reads the NFL personal conduct policy as was defined and agreed to in the last collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFLPA. Punishing players or other NFL employees for non-betting offenses dates back to 1985, when Cincinnati Bengal RB Stanley Wilson was sanctioned through multiple seasons for use of cocaine.

Since that time, well over 100 players have been suspended or otherwise sanctioned for using either recreational or performance enhancing substances. This includes the suspensions of Robert Mathis, Stedman Bailey, and other recent developments. The number is likely to rise with new sanctions such as Josh Gordon facing a year-long suspension for marijuana use. Seven New York Jets (including Santonio Holmes, Mike Goodson, and Kellen Winslow II) have been suspended for violations of the banned or illicit substances policy.

Whether or not use of recreational drugs such as marijuana should cause a player to miss a year of playing time is a matter of personal opinion, and it has been the subject of much discussion on social media. Complicating this debate is the matter of Colts owner Jim Irsay's recent arrest for DUI and cocaine possession, and the arguably dismissive approach the NFL addressed the arrest with.

Owners are not specifically mentioned in the list of "covered persons", and the clause seems to be concerned entirely with persons defined as employees, but it also clearly states that anyone affiliated with any NFL club is subject to this policy and resulting discipline. Irsay is the first NFL owner to face high profile criminal charges since 1997 when the owner of the 49ers faced federal racketeering charges and was effectively forced out of the league.

While this will surely be a lasting controversy of the 2014-15 NFL season, there are multiple and starkly contrasting examples of broken standards of conduct in the NFL. One is the hypocrisy of the expectations of employees versus owners in the NFL;  another is that while Gordon will likely miss the entire year for marijuana use, a string of recent cases involving domestic violence and other serious crimes the NFL claims to be serious about punishing are historically unlikely to end in suspensions. Perhaps the most recent and disturbing of these examples are recent developments regarding the Ray Rice incident, and the arrest of Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy on allegations of abuse of a female. The details in the linked article are very disturbing.

Since 1986, there have been over 30 suspensions not related to violations of the policy on banned or illegal substances. 15 of these suspensions were for on-field transgressions such as unsportsmanlike conduct, and 4 of those 15 on-field incidents were for the "Bountygate" scandal. Additional suspensions were for detrimental conduct to their team or the NFL, either on or off the field (Don Jones, Richie Incognito, Albert Haynesworth, and Kellen Winslow - later rescinded with apology from Cleveland Browns owner). One suspension was for violation of college rules (Terrelle Pryor). The remaining suspensions are the result of criminal behavior, or in one case serious allegations of criminal behavior.  Let's examine some of these cases:

(Edit: some of the aforementioned names are team suspensions, not league suspensions. Although in the Incognito and Haynesworth cases you can argue suspension was imminent no matter what entity issued it. Inclusion of team suspensions was an oversight)

Criminal offenses including, but not limited to, those involving: the use or threat of violence; domestic violence and other forms of partner abuse; theft and other property crimes; sex offenses; obstruction or resisting arrest; disorderly conduct; fraud; racketeering; and money laundering;

Criminal offenses relating to steroids and prohibited substances, or substances of abuse;

Violent or threatening behavior among employees, whether in or outside the workplace;

Conduct that imposes inherent danger to the safety and well being of another person; and

Conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL players.

-An excerpt of punishable offenses as defined by NFL-NFLPA agreement.

Part II: A Brief History

Adam Jones, aka "Pac Man" was alleged to have assaulted a stripper and bodyguard at a Las Vegas strip club. Shortly after Jones and his entourage left, someone returned and fired shots into the crowd Jones had the altercation with, seriously injuring several. Documents revealed Jones later paid several thousands of dollars apiece to people who were with him that night. Jones was suspended the entire 2007 season. After a physical altercation with his bodyguard, the NFL suspended Jones again. After the Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys cut ties with Jones, he eventually found a place on the Bengals roster.

Chris Henry was suspended two games for several arrests, the most serious of which was unlawful possession of a firearm. Henry would continue to be arrested, was cut by the Bengals, and eventually died after falling out of a truck during a domestic dispute. Studies of Henry's brain suggests damage sustained from hits in football may have impacted his decision making abilities.

Tank Johnson was suspended after being arrested for multiple violations of firearms laws and ultimately fell out of the NFL after the Bears cut ties.

Michael Vick was convicted of charges related to tax evasion and organized dog fighting. Documents allege Vick himself and his partners executed and abused dogs in addition to forcing them to fight to the death. His suspension largely coincided with his prison sentence. Vick is now a member of the New York Jets, as you're probably aware. Vick, for his part, has contributed to charities and appears to have conducted himself responsibly in the wake of his convictions.

Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg while a member of the New York Giants. Like Vick, his suspension coincided with his prison term. Burress had a resurgence with the Jets and Steelers briefly before falling out of the league due to age and decline in ability.

Donte Stallworth killed a pedestrian while DUI. He settled with the family, served a month in jail, and a year long suspension from the NFL. The Stallworth matter, perhaps more than any other NFL criminal case, illustrates the benefits afforded to the wealthy and well-connected by the criminal justice system. Stallworth for his part has taken responsibility for his actions, and his attorneys claimed he insisted on pleading guilty to the felony charge in spite of their expectations of acquittal.

Ben Roethlisberger is the only (edit: Cary Williams was also suspended without being arrested for what police reports describe as a domestic incident, thanks to Finhead for pointing this and other omissions out) player to be suspended for off-field conduct in the NFL without facing arrest. Roethlisberger's case, in spite of the controversies surrounding his suspension, is the single most appalling exposure of not only the behavior of many NFL players, but the paper-thin response from law enforcement when dealing with celebrities, and the superficial responses to media pressure by the NFL. Roethlisberger faced multiple allegations of sexual assault, the second of which included an on-duty (later resigned) police officer and a bodyguard obstructing justice. Roethlisberger maintains that he had consensual, "not consummated" contact with the intoxicated and under-21 victim, and that she merely slipped and hit her head in the process.

To an extent, Roger Goodell's hands were tied. There was no way the NFLPA would ever allow Roethlisberger to be banned from the game long-term without some sort of conviction. Two larger issues emerged here, the tendency of football fans to mitigate, excuse, or dismiss the reprehensible actions of their sports idols; and the role media pressure plays in determining who is suspended and for how long. Goodell HAD to suspend Roethlisberger, the PR hit by the NFL would have been far too great.

The reduction from six games to four games suspended, and the congratulatory tone with which Roger Goodell welcomed Roethlisberger back into the NFL seemed like appeasement of the NFLPA. Goodell praised Roethlisberger for his personal changes, but to the casual non-football fan observer it sounded like the commissioner was patting Roethlisberger on the back for making it several weeks without being accused of sexual assault or placing himself in a blockaded bathroom with an underage bar patron.

On a personal note, in the aftermath of this incident I wasn't sure if I could continue participating in sports commentary when so many of the fans blamed or vilified the alleged victim when Ben Roethlisberger, even if no sort of assault occurred, should have known better. Whenever a famous person is accused of assaulting a female, sexually or otherwise, an army of fans spring up and question her motives or use terms like "real rape", which is incredibly dangerous. This is where sports and celebrity culture can have serious consequences on society. A young woman who happens to be a football fan could see this backlash and be reluctant to pursue charges in a similar situation. Assault of all kinds are already underreported crimes.

Cedric Benson was suspended for one game after multiple arrests for assault, and to date is one of few players suspended for assault alone. Like other suspensions for off field conduct, Benson had a pattern of behavior at odds with the conduct policy of the NFL coupled with high media coverage of his contact with law enforcement.

Aaron Berry was suspended for three games by the NFL for multiple arrests involving DUI and menacing a group of people with a firearm. Berry would later sign with the New York Jets and play seven games with the team before finishing both the 2012 and 2013 seasons on injured reserve.

Kenny Britt has had at least nine documented runs ins with law enforcement since his NFL career began, some resulting in an array of charges. Britt was suspended for one game in the 2012 season for his constant legal troubles, and is currently attempting to salvage his career with the St. Louis Rams.

To date only a handful of players have been suspended for domestic assault cases. (Fabian Washington, Michael Boley, and Rocky Benard are recent examples, thank again to Finhead for the correction) Record shows that all the suspensions related to domestic assault were for one or two games. Brandon Marshall had multiple arrests and was facing a three game suspension but had it reduced to one game on appeal. Chronic drug abusers on average serve significantly more suspension time than those who commit assault of any kind. The rest of suspensions for criminal transgressions listed in the NFL policy were all either pervasive offenders, or high profile players facing serious allegations and/or prison time. In all cases, extensive media coverage preceded the behavior-related suspensions.

Interlude: Conduct of The New York Jets

While no Jets player has been suspended under the NFL-wide personal conduct policy since its inception, several have qualified. The most current and likely Jet to face any suspension is RB Mike Goodson, who is facing multiple charges and has a pattern of law-breaking behavior like most of the players eventually suspended by Roger Goodell. Also worth noting is that the Jets have signed several players while either serving or coming off of suspensions for serious misconduct. Aaron Berry, Plaxico Burress, and Michael Vick are the most recent examples. While the Jets have a relatively good track record with behavior when compared to other teams, the front office does not shy away from signing controversial players.

The Jets track record with illegal or performance enhancing drugs isn't great. Only the Seattle Seahawks, Washington Redskins, Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Rams historically have a greater amount of players who were on their roster at the time of suspension. For what it is worth, many of these players were already facing suspension, and the Jets just bought low, just like signing players suspended in recent history.

If you want to put a positive spin on all of this, just tell your friends that the Jets are the dopest team in the AFC.

The Jets also hold the distinction of being one of five teams with a coach suspended not related to the bountygate scandal. You probably remember the incident where Sal Alosi tripped an opposing teams player. Yeah. Not exactly the Jets proudest moment.

I think it is safe to say based on the history of suspensions, the Jets do not take character or past behavior into account as much as the rest of the NFL. Since Woody Johnson became owner, it seems to matter very little what the player has done, and in cases like Tim Tebow, it doesn't even seem to matter whether he can help the team or not. Some of these moves are more about putting butts in the seat than upholding any measure of standards, or even improving the roster.

I understand there will be a vitriolic, defensive response to all of this. Nobody likes to be told their heroes are bad. Nobody wants to be told their team is among the worst in the entire game when it comes to drug use or character concerns. This is where you have to separate your fandom from social reality. For every Kyle Wilson or other stand up player who is a great guy off the field, there are several players on every team who are absolutely despicable, as you will soon see in the blotter.

This is where you come into the equation. I know for a fact a lot of you are raising little Jets fans at home. When you excuse a persons behavior because they can play ball, your children and your peers absorb and mimic this behavior. What sort of example does a woman apologizing to the public and media for, and I'm paraphrasing here, making him hit her; set for your future adult man? What if he becomes an athlete in grade school or beyond and assumes this is all par for the course so long as he can throw a football?

Recently, Dennis Thurman had an altercation with a woman at a New Jersey bar. You can read the aftermath as well as the allegation details here. From what I can tell, Thurman and the woman were quite rude to each other, she flipped the bird in his face, and he swatted it away. Thurman is a regular at the bar and the manager and patrons who know him backed him up. The woman's only supporting witness was the friend with her at the bar. A police officer told the woman to avoid the bar where Thurman was a staple.

GGN covered this story, and the woman received a strong dose of criticism from Jets fans around the world. For her part, she did not claim injury and said she only wanted Thurman to apologize for being rude, however her party promptly sent the details to TMZ. The internet launched into attack mode and dug up her criminal record (which to be fair, involved filing a false report in the past), parroting the bar managers assertion that she was "crazy." What does this woman stand to gain when she only sought an apology and was promptly humiliated by the sports press? I'm not saying she had pure intentions, but the emerging pattern of these bar-related incidents is to trust the famous man while questioning the motives of the female.

Rex Ryan came out immediately saying Thurman would never hit a woman, before admitting he didn't know the details of the case. I understand the need to defend your colleagues, but no matter how well Rex knows Thurman, I doubt he knows what is inside his head, or how he treats women in private. The picture that the media paints of Thurman is not favorable.

More disturbing is an emerging pattern of alleged behavior by Thurman. Earlier in his tenure with the Jets, Thurman was one of several Jets employees named by Mexican reporter Ines Sainz in sexual harassment allegations. Thurman allegedly threw the ball near her so players could talk to her, while disturbing allegations were detailed in the locker room. The most common response from fans was either that she was trying to advance her career or that she dresses provocatively.

Boys, since I apparently need to say this: whether at work or play, a woman has the right to dress any way she wants without being harassed. Whether wearing a bikini or a burlap sack, there is no such thing as "asking for it," and if you believe there is, you are perpetuating this behavior. If you promptly shoot down any allegations made against your team and attack the character of the alleged victims, young Jets fans, who idolize the players and staff even more than you do, take notice. Woody Johnson eventually called Sainz and apologized, allegedly promising to "make the team respect....women."

The issue extends beyond Jets staff and players, as a child I myself witnessed abuse of women by other fans at the game. An old "tradition", I guess we'll call it, is for crowds of men to gather around Gate D and demand that female fans expose themselves, although the practice of asking female fans to flash has been declining for decades. You really need to read this article.

At halftime of the Jets home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, several hundred men lined one of Giants Stadium’s two pedestrian ramps at Gate D. Three deep in some areas, they whistled and jumped up and down. Then they began an obscenity-laced chant, demanding that the few women in the gathering expose their breasts.

When one woman appeared to be on the verge of obliging, the hooting and hollering intensified. But then she walked away, and plastic beer bottles and spit went flying. Boos swept through the crowd of unsatisfied men.

The mood of previous Gate D crowds — captured on video clips posted on YouTube...One clip online shows a woman being groped by a man standing next to her.

Look, I like breasts as much as the next warm-blooded American. It's not illegal to expose your breasts in New York, although it does technically violate New Jersey indecency laws. If a woman like the one quoted in the article genuinely wants to show off her body, more power to her.

But do you not see the emerging pattern of abusive culture here? What if you were a female Jets fan at your first game, or were just considering going to a game when you witnessed such behavior? What if you took a sister or daughter or girlfriend to the game and some drunken fool started screaming at her to take her clothes off and then berated and spat at her when she refused? Football will always be a male-dominated sport on the field and in the stands, but we're cultivating a dangerous atmosphere for women and children who want to attend these games.

The point of this aside about the Jets is that responsibility starts with Woody Johnson and John Idzik to earnestly curb such behavior, and it ends with you, the football fan. It's not all bad. As a short reprieve, go read this wiki entry about Bart Scott and what an awesome human being he is. Scott is the sort of man you should be idolizing, for his off field behavior as much as his play when at his peak. As Jets fans, in contrast to some shady characters the team signs, we are blessed with some of the best guys in the league, past and present.

Part III: NFL Players and the Law

In spite of his reputation as a harsh disciplinarian, Roger Goodell has suspended a relative handful of players for conduct not related to on-field behavior or substance abuse. That might seem like quite a bit, before you take into account the nearly-hundreds of players suspended for recreational or banned drug use. But how many NFL players run afoul of the law and break the code of conduct? NBC Sports affiliate ProFootballTalk keeps a running police blotter of NFL player arrests, which tracks the date and details of the alleged crimes.

Dating back to the beginning of 2010, I count over 215 players or club employees (including executives and cheerleaders) arrested on charges that are technically conduct violations. When you consider how few players make an active NFL roster, the rate of arrest for players is staggering. Only a few of these suspensions were for instances of assault alone. Every other case involved several arrests or the cases were so high profile, Goodell could not effectively ignore public pressure to sanction said players.

The majority of these cases are domestic or other assaults, or DUI. Weapons charges are extremely common as well. Unless a pervasive pattern of law enforcement contact emerges, relatively very few of these players are suspended. Since the start of 2010, at least 70 arrests for assault, battery, weapons charges; or sexual crimes have gone unsanctioned by the NFL.

Two recent cases underscore the problem the NFL has with assault, and the special treatment NFL players receive from the fans and media:

The most recent case of domestic violence involving an NFL player at the date of publish is the arrest of Carolina Panthers player Greg Hardy. Hardy and his partner accuse each other of domestic assault, although the courts have charged Hardy alone, and 911 calls from third parties released to the public seem damning for Hardy.

Hardy is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, but his partner alleges that he threw her on a pile of dozens of firearms which Hardy threatened to use. To their credit, very few fans seem to be blaming the person that the legal system asserts is the victim. Hardy will have his day in court, but if it resolves unfavorably for him, he could be the next player in a growing epidemic of domestic abuse by players to face NFL sanctions for it. Hardy rejoined his team this week as Panthers brass resolved to let the legal process play out.

Often, by the time the legal process has run its course the media and public pressure on the NFL or individual clubs to sanction players is greatly reduced, and the teams usually defer action even further to avoid the ire of the NFLPA. Suspensions usually hurt the teams as much as the players, and as such they are universally unpopular with the clubs as well as the fans. Meanwhile, NFL players have considerably more financial resources and clout than the average legal defendant, and they often receive favorable case dispositions. Not to pile on Stallworth, who has a lot of guilt to live with, but do you think any of the average people reading this would have avoided substantial prison time for DUI manslaughter? Doubtful, depending on the jurisdiction.

The other prolific case of alleged abuse to surface recently is the mutual arrest of Ray Rice and his fiancé for allegedly assaulting each other. Note the sheer number of jokes about domestic abuse football fans make in the commentary of this linked article. Rice's attorneys were quick to describe the event as "very minor...a misunderstanding" , and this is how the altercation was described in news headlines as a result. Later reports including an evidence video that eventually surfaced on TMZ painted a very different picture, one of Rice dragging his unconscious partner out of an elevator at the same casino. Evidence such as this led to Rice being indicted. A court summons states that the woman attempted to strike Rice, and he responded by knocking her out.

Rice and his now-spouse wed one month later, less than a full day after Rice was indicted on the charges. Rice has been admitted into a diversion program, which is a positive development as treatment, not incarceration, is statistically more likely to lead to rehabilitation for crimes such as domestic assault or DUI.

Yesterday, Ray Rice and his wife held a press conference. They have undergone counseling and appear to be living together amicably, with both proclaiming their relationship to be better than ever. Several factors are still disturbing about this case, the foremost is how the media put forward headlines and articles mitigating the actions of Rice based off of the assertions of his attorney(s) alone, which evidence suggests are false. The second troubling aspect of this matter is how football fans respond to these cases of domestic assault on message boards and forums. Commentary on PFT and countless other sites are mostly jokes and making light of the subject. Nobody is taking domestic assault seriously, from Goodell all the way down to the fans.

The last thing that bothers me about the Rice incident is that during the press conference, Ray apologized to virtually everyone except his wife, while she explicitly apologized "for the role she played in the incident." While it is clear that they reconciled, it seems notable to me that Rice gave a public apology to fans, Ravens brass, and other members of the family. What would show maturity and growth to me is publicly apologizing to the woman you knocked unconscious. Assault is assault, and she shouldn't have (allegedly) swung on Rice, but that is no excuse for what followed.

Rice will reportedly meet with Roger Goodell before the season, and reports indicate he does face possible suspension.

Part IV: Solutions

Ryan Clark seems to think recent developments involving Jim Irsay should change the way suspensions are doled out. I agree. There needs to be greater equity between drug punishments and other sanctions, and there needs to be fairness in execution of sanctions under the NFL policy on behavioral conduct if all members of the club are truly subject to the same rules.

Here's a solution that Ryan Clark and many fans alike will probably loathe; there needs to be greater accountability for players. Not just fines, but significant suspensions from playing time. There is a serious social condition in the United States where DUI and domestic/spousal abuse laws are widely disregarded. Roger Goodell has a responsibility to young fans to set an example when players break these laws. When you examine the numbers of crimes committed versus the number of players suspended for personal conduct, there is a massive disparity. The NFL needs to crack down on assault, DUI, and weapons charges.

Goodell lacks credibility with the players. I propose moving the discipline phase to a third party to arbitrate and issue sanctions. Goodell being judge and jury has done nothing to rehabilitate the criminal tendencies of NFL athletes, and the application of the conduct policy is merely a superficial response to media and public pressure. This would admittedly require revision to the collective bargaining agreement.

The NFL could also employ diversion and treatment programs similar to those which are offered for substance abuse related issues in the NFL. The knee-jerk reaction to many crimes is vindictive in nature and meant to punish instead of rehabilitate. Forcing players, staff, and owners alike to face classrooms of the kids who idolize them and explain what they did is wrong is a proactive approach to changing patterns of behavior and ending the culture of abuse perpetuated in American society.

A final disclaimer, many of these people facing sanctions still haven't had their day in court. Allow the criminal justice process to take place. This includes neither vilifying the accused or the alleged victims. While the argument being made is that suspensions need to sharply increase for the crimes described, nobody looks good under the microscope. We are all human so far as I know, and everyone reading this has likely made a terrible mistake (or several) they aren't proud of at some point in their life.

To clear the air, I am a convicted felon (with a sealed youthful offender record) and I know better than most the way a community can ostracize a person when their bad deeds are widely published. Additionally, my biological father is a convicted triple murderer serving the balance of a 180 sentence in a Florida State prison, and he is suspected of additional murders. I know firsthand the monsters people can become when their bad behavior is allowed to fester untreated. I tell you all of this not for attention or sympathy, but to make it clear that my personal intent is to change the culture and not to scapegoat people trying to fix their lives in a very public setting. People must be held accountable, but also put in situations where they can grow and change.

I close with a message for male football fans, who account for the vast majority of sports viewers and users of sports-related sites such as these. We enjoy many privileges in life we are not always aware of, and on the flip side we each have a personal responsibility to serve as an example of what it means to be real men who make responsible decisions that don't harm others. Consider the impact of not only your own actions but those who you (and your children) idolize. We must denounce the "boys will be boys" attitude that perpetuates crimes like these every offseason and discourages female fans from joining the discussion.

Again, I take full responsibility for the assertions in this article and any consequences or backlash associated with them. These views are not necessarily reflective or even similar to those belonging to my editors, GGN staff, or SBNation.