Commissioner Roger Goodell might be the one handing down discipline in the NFL, but he doesn't always have to be the first to respond to criticism for it.
The league sent out of NFL vice president labor policy and government affairs Adolpho Birch as a human bullet shield on ESPN in lieu of Goodell on Monday after Friday's two-game suspension for Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, discipline that roundly was met with contempt from the public.
“It is multiple games and hundreds of thousands of dollars. I think it’s fair to say that doesn’t reflect that you condone the behavior,” Birch said on the network's Mike & Mike show, defending the suspension that came off as extremely light for a man who beat and then publicly dragged his fiancée (now wife) through the halls of an Atlantic City hotel.
Why Birch? Who is he?
In his bio on the Partnership For Clean Competition website, Birch's responsibilities are described as such:
"In his current capacity, he oversees the development, administration and enforcement of the League's policies on substances of abuse, steroids and other performance-enhancing substances and criminal misconduct. Mr. Birch also oversees the League's player engagement efforts, which comprise a number of initiatives designed to support player and employee off-field success, focusing on continuing education, financial education, career development, career transition and clinical assistance."
And then we are fed a line to remember.
"Today, the NFL is widely regarded as the most proactive, comprehensive and effective sports organization in dealing with these issues."
Guessing this was not written in the past week.
Birch was asked some tough questions about the Rice punishment, and there were few firm answers from Birch to latch onto. Little he said justified the NFL's suspension, the process or what message the league seems to be sending with its inconsistency and light hand.
“The discipline that was taken by the NFL is the only discipline that occurred with respect to Mr. Rice in this case,” Birch said. “Were he not an NFL player, I don’t know that he would have received punishment from any other source.
"We believe that the discipline we issued is appropriate. It’s multiple games and hundreds of thousands of dollars. It doesn’t reflect that we condone the behavior.”
Asked how the league arrived at two games, Birch went into his lawyerly bag of tricks to deceive and create diversionary tactics. In the matter of a few breaths, Birch claimed that Rice's two-game suspension was “bound in large part by precedent in prior cases” but then said it's unfair to compare cases, such as Ben Roethlisberger receiving a six-game suspension (later reduced to four).
“I don’t think it’s particularly appropriate to weigh each case against itself,” Birch said.
No, because that would make the NFL look silly, would it not?
But how can we not stack and compare some of the discipline cases on Goodell's watch, which now appear as arbirtrary as dart throws?
Cedric Benson once received a three-game suspension for assaulting a former roommate. Albert Haynesworth got five games after stomping on an opponent's head in the heat of a game. Terrelle Pryor received five games in the Ohio State tattoo case before he ever entered the NFL. Tank Johnson was suspended half a season for illegal firearm possession.
Where is the consistency? Is there any scale at all here?
Birch also hid behind the veil of the “privacy of the process” when asked if Goodell had more information to review on Rice's case than what already has been made public. We don't know what statements were made by Rice or by people in defense of Rice, but as of right now the information that is out there and the past precedents — Birch's pleas not to compare cases be damned — do not match up with the punishment that was handed down.
As a result, the NFL appears completely tone deaf to the seriousness of violence committed by its players, and especially against women. The case as spiraled into a national discussion, and it's one that believes the NFL took a major misstep here.
We now have no clue what to expect the league to do about the Carolina Panthers' Greg Hardy, who was convicted by a district court of assaulting his girlfriend, but please don't blame us if our expectations are disappointingly low.
The comparison of Rice's two-game suspension versus drug violation cases isn't the best measuring stick. Those are second-offense cases akin to comparing apples to oranges, and we're willing to give the league that. But apples to apples, Rice got off easily if we're considering the nature of the offense, the sensitivity of the topic and the way the NFL can manage to so brazenly alienate a large chunk of the people who watch the sport without an apparent hint of awareness.
“These cases are not really subject to that form of set penalty,” Birch said. “So there is more thought and judgment that has to be employed. In this case, this is what the Commissioner felt was appropriate.”
If that's the case, Goodell should be out front saying it himself. If he's going to be the one responsible for the discipline, then he must be prepared to defend the process, shed light on the facts of the case and justify his findings.
After all, this is the most proactive, comprehensive and effective league on such matters, right?
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