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Ray Rice and the real problem with the NFL's personal conduct policy

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The league is convinced it gave Ray Rice a suitable and tough punishment, but the public thinks otherwise. So where does the problem lie?

The NFL goes to great lengths to preserve the image and integrity of the game, whether it's personal conduct or protecting competitive balance. That's why commissioner Roger Goodell dropped the hammer on Sean Payton with a yearlong suspension in the wake of the Saints bounty scandal. And it's why a mere two-game suspension for Ray Rice in the wake of a very ugly and very public assault on his fiancee is worthy of outrage.

Set aside the emotion for a moment. That part's easy and justified. What I'm struggling with here is the level of punishment Rice received, the reaction on the other side of the coin, and what kind of precedent (if any) it establishes or advances.

Gray areas

It's been well-noted how the league handles offenders of the substance abuse and banned substances policies in contrast to Rice's two-game suspension. The process and consequences for PEDs and illegal drugs are more clearly defined.

Standards are less clear for personal conduct; the name alone implies vagueness. A player or anyone else employed by the league, including owners, is subject to the policy. And a person doesn't necessarily have to be arrested and convicted of a crime or misdemeanor to find themselves in a discipline hearing.

From the official policy:

While criminal activity is clearly outside the scope of permissible conduct, and persons who engage 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.

That's notable in Rice's case. Despite the horrific video of him dragging his unconscious fiancee out of an elevator by her hair, he pleaded not guilty to a third-degree aggravated assault charge and was able to forgo a trial completely by agreeing to an intervention program.

And when it comes to discipline ...

The specifics of the disciplinary response will be based on the nature of the incident, the actual or threatened risk to the participant and others, any prior or additional misconduct (whether or not criminal charges were filed), and other relevant factors.

Rice did not have any prior run-ins with the law or the league. But watching that video, it's hard not to see a gap between the league's words and actions.

Politics at work

There was that press conference where the Ravens paraded Rice and his wife in front of cameras and had them read a canned apology. Yes, she apologized too. And Rice's language at that time and since has always included his wife.

Here's what he said Thursday after the suspension was announced:

As I said earlier, I failed in many ways. But, Janay and I have learned from this. We have become better as a couple and as parents. I am better because of everything we have experienced since that night.

Rice and the Ravens made a good show of things here, working over the media and the league officials at NFL headquarters.

And it may have worked. The NFL Network noted "the iron fist" of its parent company as part of its reporting on Rice's suspension. On ESPN, NFL insider Adam Schefter noted Rice's "history of being an upstanding citizen." Then, he added this:

Schefter added that some believed Rice's meeting with Goodell, which he also took his wife to, went well enough to reduce what might have otherwise been a longer suspension. We'll never know, because the league lacks a clear standard in its personal conduct policy as well as any kind of transparency in the rationale for punishments.

The NFL and domestic violence

In public, the NFL puts on a good show about how it will not tolerate domestic violence by its players and other employees covered by the personal conduct policy. But the rhetoric doesn't match up with the actions taken when the league's confronted with such a situation.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger received a six-game suspension in 2010 for an alleged sexual assault that took place in a Georgia nightclub. That case never went to trial, but it was the second such accusation leveled at Roethlisberger in a two-year span. His suspension was later reduced to four games.

The Roethlisberger incident alone raises questions about the league's consistency in handling player conduct issues in light of Rice's two-game suspension.

Things get really confusing when you compare the suspensions for Rice and Roethlisberger with other suspensions handed out by the league.

  • Plaxico Burress got a four-game suspension for shooting himself in the leg with a concealed handgun he brought to a New York City nightclub.
  • Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh got a two-game suspension for stomping on the Packers' center.
  • Cedric Benson received a three-game suspension for a misdemeanor assault charge in 2011, his second assault incident in two years.
  • Terrelle Pryor served one of the most notorious NFL suspensions of all, five games for his role in exchanging memorabilia for cash ... while he was in college.

Going through the list of suspensions and comparing them to what Ray Rice got, it's hard to agree that the NFL actually puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to domestic or sexual assault incidents.

From the outside, it looks like Rice got off easy with a two-game, $500,000 slap on the wrist from the "iron fist" of The Shield. But in the insular world of the NFL, it's the opposite feeling, and you can see that in the statements from the coach and the commissioner and in commentary from the media.

It all stems from the league's vague personal conduct policy that hides the player discipline process behind a curtain and makes the commissioner the arbiter of intent for each disciplinary action. To the NFL, this is the best way to protect its integrity and maintain its image, but in a situation such as Rice's, it undermines those things.

Goodell has two more domestic violence situations on the docket, Greg Hardy and Daryl Washington. We don't know whether or not the Rice case will set a precedent for those two, because the NFL doesn't appear to adhere to any kind of precedent for these situations.