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For the NFL to Grow, Its Leaders Must Grow Up

Ray Rice

Ray Rice

In light of Ray Rice’s recent two-game suspension for his part in an altercation that ended with the decorated Baltimore Raven carelessly dragging his unconscious then-fiancée - now wife – Janay Palmer out of a New Jersey casino elevator, the NFL has been taking some well deserved heat from reporters and journalists all over the nation. The criticism has been rampant but warranted; it’s obvious that the league dropped the ball in disciplining the star running back. In an interview with ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike in the Morning," Aldopho Birch, the Senior Vice President of Labor Policy & Government Affairs, insisted that the Rice decision, a punishment that essentially translates into a $500,000 fine, demonstrates that the NFL does not condone his actions. But Birch, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and the rest of the league’s leaders are missing the point. Yes, the NFL is a business, but that does not mean that every action and transaction involving the league should be measured in dollars.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, a number of notable players were given lifetime bans for drug and crime-related incidents. But that was a time when the on-the-field action was more brutal, as was the iron-fist style of discipline that we saw from Pete Rozelle, who reigned over the NFL from 1960 to the end of the '80s.

The modern equivalent of the discipline seen during the NFL’s older days can be found in the Michael Vick dog-fighting scandal. Vick was suspended indefinitely without pay for running an operation consisting of pit bull fights that were accompanied by hefty wagers. The shifty Falcons quarterback went on to serve 548 days behind bars, but by Week 13 of the 2009 season, he was back on the field throwing touchdowns yet again. Simply put, if this is the most damning penalty levied by Goodell in his tenure, he has failed dramatically. The final outcome: Vick took a three-year hiatus from football for abusing animals and managing an illegal gambling ring. In any other profession, a fall from grace of this magnitude would be tremendously difficult to return from. But in today's NFL, money overshadows morality. Vick is a well-known character who can sell merchandise and put fans in the stands. The quarterback's treatment shows that the commissioner has been more of a buddy to players than a boss.

In a second high-profile case in 2010, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. In another case related to the mistreatment of women, Roethlisberger was accused two separate times of sexual assault, a situation equally troubling to the one that Rice created in February. But no one talks about Big Ben’s shady behavior anymore. He disappeared from the starting lineup for a few games and then returned to the field. That same year, eight players were suspended for the same length or longer for the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

If the NFL cared about the concept of “integrity” as much as it would like everyone to believe, Roethlisberger would have been sidelined significantly longer than those eight peers who personally jeopardized their own health to gain a competitive edge, not the other way around. In handing down the suspension to Rice, Goodell wrote that the NFL “simply does not tolerate conduct that harms others.” If that’s the case, it should be reflected in the league’s actions; words are meaningless here.

Today, roughly 66 percent of NFL teams have at least one player on their rosters with a domestic violence or sexual violence charge on his record. The owners of the individual teams could care less about a player’s wrongdoing in the past; it's all made right on the field if you're scoring points. This is a despicable attitude but not an incomprehensible one. These organizations are out to make a profit and they need to field the best possible talent in order to do so, criminal or not. But here is where Goodell should step in. In his interview with "Mike & Mike," Birch suggested that the way the NFL determines discipline is “based on both the conduct and the importance of making the right message for the league.” The right message would be that domestic and sexual violence is inexcusable, but for men blinded by the pursuit of monetary gains, it seems to be harder to arrive at that conclusion.

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon will most likely miss the entire year for smoking pot, which is now legal in two U.S. states. All 14 of the other suspensions this offseason will have a player sit for at least four games. Rice will serve just two for incapacitating his wife with a vicious punch. You can see the hypocrisy in it all with just a surface-level glance. This is bad news for all parties involved, and a more ominous thought is that Rice’s peers have not seriously condemned him for his actions.

The league’s stance on the abuse of women is shown by its handling of numerous cases over the years. I would summarize it as so: if you don’t make us money, you’re on your own. To retired players who sue the league for fumbling the concussion crisis, the answer is the same. The NFL is willing to invest millions and even change the game’s traditional rules to preserve the health of stars in their prime. But for anyone besides the beer-bellied, jersey-donning fanatics filing into stadiums across America every Sunday, if you can’t suit up, your opinion doesn’t matter.

At some point the NFL needs to stop treating these conduct-related incidents from players, coaches, and team administration (see: Jim Irsay) as if they exist in a vacuum. All of these men are role models for young children around America, and if Commissioner Goodell had his way, the rest of the world. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States. This accounts for more harm each year than car accidents, muggings and rapes combined. Each case is unique and so are state laws, but in the US judicial system, a conviction can bring a sentence of up to four years. For sexual assault, the terms are similar. However, Roethlisberger received a penalty of four games, Rice just two. True, these men were not convicted for their crimes, but neither was O.J. Simpson or Ray Lewis.

Currently, women represent approximately 45 percent of the NFL fan base, according to Scarborough Research, and 33 percent of viewers based on Nielsen data. To increase profits, the league must find ways for these numbers to increase organically. The NFL now offers pink jerseys and other feminine gear for those interested. But in order to truly reel in this potential fan base for good, the NFL cannot continue to treat women as though they are unimportant to the league’s goals. If it were not enough that women are people too, then I would urge the NFL to consider that women are fans too. As a member of society, the NFL is failing to meet its social responsibilities. What Goodell and the rest of the league office fail to realize is that if the league’s disciplinary policies are not remarkably transformed soon, the NFL's business model may fail, or at least be damaged mightily, as well.

As the NFL’s reach grows in coming years to cover new geographic and demographic regions across the globe, so will the marriage of the world’s attention and the influence of NFL employees and members. Sadly, for now the NFL can get away with having a reputation of condoning violence against women. But if Commissioner Goodell’s aims at expansion are genuine, the league will have to prioritize an ethical operating system over the quality of its product moving forward.