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The NBA's domestic violence policy must improve

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Coming up with a consistent domestic violence policy is not easy, but the NBA and the Players Association need to put their heads together and change the current system for the better.

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Danny La-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, the NBA announced Jeff Taylor, a relatively unknown role player on the Charlotte Hornets, was suspended 24 games without pay for a guilty plea on misdemeanor battery charges relating to a domestic violence incident in September. Taylor has already been on leave from the team, but he's been getting paid. He'll end up losing 24 games worth of pay -- about $200,000 of the $915,000 he's due this season. The Hornets could bring him back on Dec. 17, but there's been whispers the team might just eat his salary and dump him when the time comes.

It seemed as though that was the end of this story: a forgettable player takes a massive suspension as a sports commissioner tries to burnish his league's reputation in the wake of national tumult over athletes and the law. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was rightfully ridiculed for suspending Ray Rice two games for knocking out his fiancée. NBA commissioner Adam Silver was going to ensure his league didn't make that mistake.

You know how we know the NFL's travails played a role in Taylor's hefty punishment? Because the heft of Taylor's punishment is completely unprecedented. Patricia Bender tracks all NBA and team punishments. Here are the domestic violence suspensions I could find, plus one unpunished arrest.

  • Last season, Jared Sullinger was suspended one game by the Celtics after a domestic violence arrest. Charges were dropped.
  • In 2010, Lance Stephenson received no punishment after an arrest for -- trigger warning -- allegedly pushing his pregnant girlfriend down the stairs and kicking her in the face. No charges were brought.
  • In 2007, Ron Artest was suspended seven games for a no contest plea in a misdemeanor domestic violence case. Artest, of course, had prior run-ins with the league.
  • In 2003, Jason Richardson and Glenn Robinson were each suspended three games after conviction on misdemeanor domestic violence charges.
  • In 2002, Ruben Patterson picked up a $100,000 fine and no suspension when domestic violence charges were dropped after an arrest.

We can learn two things from that punishment history. First: the league does not -- or at least did not under David Stern -- have a consistent policy on punishment for domestic violence incidents. The lack of consistency on cases in which charges were dropped or not filed is a big marquee point here, and Stephenson and Sullinger provide the most recent examples there. The NBA sometimes punishes players arrested for, but not convicted of, domestic violence. Sullinger, in fact, was suspended by the Celtics, not the league.

The second thing we learn is Taylor's penalty is completely out of range with the other sanctions. Artest got seven games in a similar situation, albeit seven years ago. But the NBA is known for progressive punishment -- if you have priors, you're getting a bigger suspension -- and Artest was at the time most decorated suspendee in the league.

And Taylor's ban is more than triple that.

So when players' union head Michele Roberts says:

"I am disappointed that, as reflected in the sanction imposed against Jeff, the League instead chose to bend to the pressure it feels from the current media spotlight and impose punishment well beyond what is contained in the current [collective bargaining agreement] or in line with existing precedent."

She has a solid case that this is out of line with precedent. Given the size of Taylor's punishment and the continued scrutiny on the NFL, I buy her argument that this was as much a smart PR play as a rational decision on how the league wants to deal with domestic violence now. That Taylor isn't an All-Star certainly helps. Can you imagine the NBA suspending a marquee name a third of the season on a misdemeanor plea of any sort?

But Roberts missteps in three spots in her statement on Taylor's suspension.

First, she accurately states this sanction is unprecedented. That is irrelevant, though, because the precedent is terrible.

Second, she cites the collective bargaining agreement to reinforce that Taylor's suspension is overly harsh. The agreement only says, however, players are subject to a minimum suspension of 10 games for violent felonies convictions or pleas (Article VI, Section 7). The agreement also gives the NBA leeway to conduct its own investigations and punish players at its discretion for any arrest, provided the league has independent information about the player's conduct leading to the arrest (Article VI, Section 15). A common theme throughout Article VI of the CBA is, in fact, league discretion in doling out punishments.

And that's the third issue with Roberts' statement: the players' union and everyone else really ought to be on board with league discretion on punishments.

A blanket policy setting specific penalties, as the NFL now has after all the backlash, looks like the most fair on the surface. It's actually really problematic in a few ways. Different jurisdictions prosecute domestic violence to different degrees. A misdemeanor battery charge in Michigan is different than a misdemeanor battery charge in California. By setting absolute standards, you're relying on uniform criminal penalties that simply do not exist. That's also the case when it comes to situations in which someone is arrested, but no charges are filed or charges are dropped. If you have iron-clad penalty levels, you risk punishing a Ray Rice situation the same as a Sullinger situation.

This is not to diminish what Sullinger was alleged to have done. The arrest report alleges during an argument, Sullinger pushed his girlfriend onto her bed and pinned her down, but did not otherwise strike her. Rice knocked out his fiancée and dragged her limp body from an elevator. Clearly, these incidents were very different, but with uniform penalties, they'd be punished by the league similarly. That's not right.

None of this is easy. The best solution will come from the league and union working together with domestic violence experts to find the most constructive way to deter abuse. That's what is most important after all -- the prevention of domestic abuse. Everything should be framed against that goal.