The strong public reaction to the Ray Rice debacle forced an overreaction from the NFL, which came up with a procedure for getting out of a hot kitchen by putting players accused but not yet convicted of a crime on paid leave.
After finagling agreements with Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy to be paid to not play, the NFL formalized the use of the Commissioner Exempt list in the new Personal Conduct Policy. The league insists that there’s no discipline involved because the player is still paid, but that ignores the fact that football players want to (wait for it) play football. Especially when a football player’s performance while playing football can result in plenty of positive developments, from helping the team win a Super Bowl to a bigger contract to individual awards to, in time, a permanent bronze bust in a building that, at some point, won’t be able to fit all the bronze busts.
The new policy has two triggers for putting a player on paid leave. First, paid leave applies if a player is charged with a violent crime “in the form of an indictment by a grand jury, the filing of charges by a prosecutor, or an arraignment in a criminal court.” Second, paid leave applies “if an investigation leads the Commissioner to believe that you may have violated this Policy.”
The NFL has not yet placed Titans receiver Justin Hunter on paid leave, even though he already has been arraigned for felonious assault, which allegedly resulted from Hunter punching the victim in the face twice, breaking his jaw and cracking a tooth. (The initial booking records suggested cutting, wounding, and stabbing, which in light of the actual injuries makes little sense.) Hunter currently faces five to 20 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
The fact that the Titans reportedly expect Hunter at training camp makes the situation even more confusing, given that this case seems to fall within the obvious confines of the paid leave protocol.
Technically, the new Policy says only that a player “may be” placed on paid leave under either of those two circumstances, not “will be.” But if Hunter isn’t going to be placed on paid leave for allegedly punching a guy in the face twice, breaking his jaw, and cracking a tooth less than two weeks after Bill offensive line coach Aaron Kromer was placed on paid leave for an alleged punch that apparently inflicted no such injuries, the league should at least provide a reason for the different outcomes.
Otherwise, the use of paid leave will seem arbitrary, fueling the perception by some that the league simply makes up the rules as it goes.
Or maybe the league is starting to realize that paid leave as a knee-jerk reaction to allegations that haven’t resulted in any type of responsibility may not be the best way to handle these situations, especially since keeping a player from playing football amounts to discipline even if he’s being paid — and since the threat of paid leave will cause many teams to short-circuit the process by putting players unpaid leave, by getting rid of them.