After the Ray Rice debacle, the NFL vowed to handle domestic violence cases differently. No excuses. No tolerance. No deference to the criminal justice system. The league promised moving forward that it would do its own investigations, and that it would impose a minimum suspension of six games on any player who engages in domestic violence.
The six-game minimum comes with a caveat. If there are mitigating circumstances, then the punishment can be reduced. That’s apparently what happened with Giants kicker Josh Brown. It’s impossible to know that for sure because: (1) the NFL has not specified what the mitigating circumstances, if any, were; and (2) the NFL didn’t even mention consideration of mitigating circumstances in its multiple statements on the matter. The only thing the league has said to justify the one-game suspension is that both Brown’s ex-wife and law enforcement officials refused to cooperate with the investigation.
Some are suggesting that the league hasn’t provided the information about mitigating circumstances because it would make Brown’s ex-wife look bad, and that everyone should give the NFL and the Giants the benefit of the doubt on this one. But here’s the problem: The benefit of the doubt evaporated the moment Mary Jo White, hired by the league to supposedly provide an unbiased assessment of the Saints bounty scandal, insisted that sideline video showed former Saints defensive end Anthony Hargrove saying, “Bobby, give me my money” during the 2009 NFC title game when careful consideration of the audio and the video proved no such thing. From that moment forward, the credibility of league-run investigations became compromised, preventing anyone from confidently saying, “OK, we’ll take your word for it.”
Subsequent circumstances have underscored this point. When the NFL tried to suspend Ray Rice after the elevator video emerged (and after he already had been suspended two games for knocking out his then-fiancee in the elevator), the league based the second punishment on the notion that Rice had lied during the disciplinary process. An arbitrator rejected that claim that Rice had merely said his victim had “knocked herself out.” Likewise, the #Deflategate saga entailed bastardizations of both science and Tom Brady’s testimony, all in the name (apparently) of reaching the conclusion the NFL wanted to reach.
Why would they not go after Josh Brown when they went after Tom Brady? The easy answer is that they wanted to go after Brady, and they didn’t want to go after Brown (or, at a minimum, they wanted to go easy on Brown).
So why go easy on Brown? Some would say that the Commissioner deferred to Giants co-owner John Mara, who is regarded as one of the most influential owners in the league. One league insider who is troubled by the outcome of the Brown case pointed to this dynamic involving NFL off-field discipline chief Lisa Friel, as noted by Peter King of TheMMQB.com in October 2014: “She is a big football fan; New York Giants season tickets have been in her family for decades, and she has been to each of the three Giants home games this fall.”
If Mike Kensil’s relationship with the Jets was fair game for scrutiny in the #DeflateGate saga whether the league wanted to harm the Patriots, it’s fair to point out league-office allegiances that could help a team. Moreover, during the officiating lockout of 2012, a replacement official who made it clear that he is a Saints fan was pulled from a Saints game. If fan allegiance is enough to result in an official being removed from a given game, it’s fair to at least ask the question of whether Friel’s affinity for the Giants influenced her decision to opt for lenience with Brown — and her willingness to not press harder to hear from Brown’s ex-wife or from law enforcement.
But for the bounty scandal and the Ray Rice second suspension and #Deflategate, maybe folks would be inclined to give the league the benefit of the doubt and accept the notion that full transparency would undermine privacy interests of the player involved and his family. Given those past incidents and in consideration of the current circumstances, it’s difficult to not wonder whether the facts as collected by the team and the league fairly led to a decision to suspend Brown for only one game, or whether that’s simply the outcome the league and the team wanted, regardless of whether the facts (including a claim by Brown’s ex-wife of 20 prior incidents of violence) suggest that the punishment should have been more severe.
Would I like to be able to accept the NFL at face value on this issue and others like it? Absolutely. It’s not my fault that I can’t, and it’s the responsibility of the NFL and the Giants to properly balance player privacy interests against loudly-stated proclamations from 2014 about no excuses and no tolerance for domestic violence in a way that doesn’t require the benefit of the doubt or any other courtesy to be extended by a public whose confidence in the game is supposedly of paramount importance to the league.