Before the Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, and Adrian Peterson cases of 2014, NFL players who faced criminal charges typically continued to show up for work while prosecution was pending. Except in rare cases (like Mike Vick’s dogfighting and gambling indictment of 2007, which sparked an indefinite suspension without pay), the league took no action until the court proceedings had ended.
The notorious Ray Rice video, followed four days later by the child-abuse allegations against Peterson and amid the then-lingering domestic violence case against Hardy, prompted the NFL to find a way to get Peterson and Hardy off the field without suspending them. They both agreed to be placed on paid leave at a time when they otherwise were free men who were presumed innocent.
In December 2014, the NFL codified the availability of paid leave for any players facing criminal charges. It’s a vague, discretionary process that the league uses in some cases and not in others, with no clear rules or formulas for invoking it.
As to Bills running back LeSean McCoy, who is expected to be charged with aggravated assault in Philadelphia, the league won’t be using paid leave during the portion of the calendar in which all players are on unpaid leave. At some point, however, the players will return — and the wheels of justice often grind slowly. If McCoy chooses to fight the case through trial, he could miss all of the 2016 season, but with pay.
The alternative would be to resolve the charges with a plea deal. The prosecutors will know that McCoy needs to get the case behind him in order to play, which means they’d potentially drive a harder bargain.
If McCoy pleads guilty to anything before the start of the 2016 season, he’ll then face an unpaid suspension for a baseline of six games, which can be increased or decreased based on a variety of factors.
From the team’s perspective, there’s no good solution. Already, $2.5 million of McCoy’s base salary is fully guaranteed for 2016. The remaining $2.3 million becomes fully guaranteed on March 9. A suspension would void the guarantees, and it also would allow the Bills to recover a portion of his signing bonus. Paid leave would have no impact on the guaranteed money; even if they cut McCoy now or while he’s on paid leave, they’ll still owe him the money. (That said, cutting him now would avoid the extra $2.3 million guaranteed.)
For McCoy, the question becomes whether it’s more important to play in 2016 or to maximize his earnings. He could get all of his money for 2016 but then face an unpaid suspension in 2017, if he’s convicted in the next offseason. Or he could plead guilty sooner than later and lose a large chunk of his 2016 pay after being suspended by the league.
Few will shed tears for McCoy, based on videos that seem to show him participating in an assault. Regardless, the league’s post-Rice protocols will put McCoy in a much more delicate spot than he would have been before 2014, when players who were facing charges typically played while the charges were pending, no questions asked.