The NFL received a much-deserved round of national applause for finally admitting that which pretty much everyone knew: The league got it wrong when suspending Ravens running back Ray Rice for only two games for committing domestic violence against his then-fiancée.
But setting aside the rare public mea culpa, which didn’t happen in the bungled bounty case against the Saints, the question becomes whether anything has really changed.
It’s a fair question that was flagged by Barry Petchesky of Deadspin. The language of the new policy states that the NFL can consider “[m]itigating circumstances” in reducing a suspension below the six-game standard penalty for a first offense.
In other words, the league can reduce the suspension below six games, pointing to the same excuses that were identified both publicly and privately in defending the two-game suspension for Rice, from Rice’s clean history to his high character to the potential for extreme provocation from the victim to the decision of prosecutors to allow Rice to enter a diversionary program. Indeed, it’s possible that Rice, under the new standard, still would have been suspended only two games.
Possible, but not likely. The NFL’s mistake in the Rice case arose from the league’s belief that, in most cases, significant penalties should not apply for a first-time offender. The new domestic violence policy, by pegging the baseline discipline at six games for a first offense, breaks from the prior presumption that once may be an accident, but that twice is definitely a trend.
The far more significant change to the new domestic violence/sexual assault policy comes in response to a second offense. Now, the NFL will implement a mandatory banishment of at least one year for a player who engages in the same or similar behavior twice: “A second offense will result in banishment from the league; an offender may petition for reinstatement after one year but there is no assurance that the petition will be granted.”
That’s a harsh standard, which says nothing about mitigating factors or any of the other wiggle room that would allow the league to reduce the punishment below one year.
Also, an “offense” for the new policy isn’t confined to domestic violence and sexual assault. The enhanced policy also generally includes assault and battery. Technically, this means that a pair of bar fights can, in theory, get a guy kicked out of the league.
Whether the new policy is applied that strictly remains to be seen, especially when it’s unclear what a player’s offense actually was. If, for example, a player initially is arrested for assault but later pleads guilty to disorderly conduct even if the facts suggest an assault occurred, will that be a first offense? And will that next reduced plea to disorderly conduct get him thrown out of the league for a full year?
Based on the plain language of the new policy, it’s entirely possible that the new policy will be applied strictly and broadly. In the end, the message from the league office to all players could be this: “If you didn’t like what we did to Ray Rice, you’re gonna hate what we may do to you.”