The NFL took a proper and strong first step toward rectifying its mistake on Ray Rice’s domestic violence case, in which the Baltimore Ravens running back was suspended just two games and the public outrage was fierce, by strengthening its policy on domestic violence.
The first domestic violence offense will bring a six-game suspension ("mitigating circumstances will be considered," the league added) and the second will be an indefinite ban with the chance to apply for reinstatement after a year, with "no assurance that the petition will be granted."
How the NFL applies the policy will be interesting to watch because there’s a lot of gray area that will have to be considered when there’s a case brought before commissioner Roger Goodell (much like, if a player's previous domestic violence history will be taken into account or how Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy, who was convicted in July but is appealing, will be handled).
The NFL said in its letter to owners that the new personal conduct policy measures will regard “assault, battery, domestic violence and sexual assault that involve physical force,” and there will likely be cases in which “physical force” will be argued. As will cases in which charges are dropped or a lesser charge is pleaded to (ESPN reported that a league source said discipline will be triggered by "adjudication of a player's case, such as a conviction or plea agreement").The NFL's personal conduct policy states that a conviction is not required for the player to face discipline.
The NFL Players Association already put out a somewhat terse statement on the new policy:
“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 statement said.
There will be plenty of nuance involved in doling out these punishments, which the league touched on in its letter. The “mitigating circumstances” line opens the door for lesser punishments while the league addressed giving out more than six games for egregious first-time offenses by saying, “more severe discipline will be imposed if there are aggravating circumstances such as the presence or use of a weapon, choking, repeated striking, or when the act is committed against a pregnant woman or in the presence of a child.”
Goodell will be under intense scrutiny the first few times he implements this stronger policy. We can see from past cases that he will have some challenges. Not every case is the same.
There have been seven players who were arrested at least twice since 2000 on domestic violence charges, according to USA Today’s database, and therefore might have been looking at an indefinite ban. That is, depending on how the NFL wants to punish players when they aren’t convicted, or how the league determines “physical force.”
Here are the seven, using the information from USA Today, and on many you can see the potential issues for the NFL (and, as an aside, you’ll also see that four of the seven on this list happened to spend time with the Broncos during the Mike Shanahan era):
Broncos safety Sam Brandon: Was arrested twice, in 2004 and 2005. One of the charges was dropped. One arrest was for “assault and causing property damage.” He was suspended two games by the NFL after the 2005 arrest. Would his dropped charge be entirely ignored, or how would the dropped charge on one and the lack of battery (“physical force”) be factored in?
Broncos tight end Dwayne Carswell: Carswell was arrested twice, in 2001 and 2003. He was given community service and a diversion program for one, and pleaded guilty to the other. He was suspended one game by the NFL. He would seemingly be banned indefinitely if it happened under the new policy.
Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill: In 2010 he was arrested for a dispute with his girlfriend, and entered a diversion program and had 18-month probation with a treatment program. He was arrested in 2013 for “third-degree assault and unlawful imprisonment” and the resolution is undetermined.
Chiefs running back Larry Johnson: Johnson had two arrests that fall under domestic violence (one for brandishing a gun) and two others that involve women (spitting in a woman’s face in one, pushing a woman's head in another), and he pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace on both. How would the NFL view all four of those events in today’s policy?
Broncos/Dolphins/Bears receiver Brandon Marshall: Marshall was accused in 2008 of hitting his girlfriend, but was acquitted of that charge. In another incident, he blocked his girlfriend’s taxi from leaving and hit the window, with the charge dropped if he completed anger management. He had a “domestic dispute,” that USA Today’s database didn’t classify as domestic violence which he was arrested for, but charges were dropped. He was suspended by the NFL three games (reduced to one) for violating the personal conduct policy (he also had a DUI), but would any of these cases register under the new domestic violence policy, since he wasn’t convicted of any that involved “physical force”? Will any of these previous cases matter under the new domestic violence policy going forward if he gets in trouble again? Marshall is the only one of these seven currently on an NFL roster.
Dolphins tight end Randy McMichael: In 2004, McMichael was accused of hitting his wife, but the charge was dropped. In 2005 he was accused of giving his wife a bloody nose, but pleaded guilty to just criminal trespass. There were two arrests but no convictions of domestic violence.
Buccaneers/Cardinals/Broncos running back Michael Pittman: Pittman had three arrests. Once he rammed his Hummer into his wife’s Mercedes (is that “physical force”?). In another incident he broke a sliding glass door, for which he pleaded guilty. Another time he got in a “heated argument” with his wife, who locked herself in a car to get away from him. He did a diversion program after that. How would the NFL rule on his cases under this policy?
Every one of these cases is a bit different. Will Goodell really hand down an indefinite ban for a case in which a lesser charge was pleaded to? Will he hand out six games for a first offense that falls under the domestic violence umbrella but no battery happened? These questions will be answered in time. The sporting world will be paying close attention.
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