A wise man has said, “Once is an accident, twice is a trend. Four, five, or six times is a clear indication of a strategic shift in overall policy.” (I may have added the last part.)
It has become more and more clear and obvious over the past year or so that the NFL, reeling from sharp reductions in TV viewership during the 2016 and 2017 seasons, has decided to take a kindler and gentler approach to player discipline, in order to ensure that as many great players as possible are available to play in NFL regular-season and postseason games.
The change happened at some point after the Ezekiel Elliott case, which entailed (in my opinion) a Keystone cops investigation and a kangaroo court proceeding aimed at justifying that which the league office wanted to do: Suspend Elliott for six games.
Those wheels were put in motion before the election-induced ratings drop of 2016 was followed by the unexpected anthem-induced additional ratings drop of 2017, and the end result was the team that has become the top TV draw in the NFL spending 37.5 percent of a season without the straw that stirs its drink. As ratings plummeted in 2017, someone at the league office apparently did the math regarding the impact of not having great players on the field versus the impact of letting great players play despite off-field baggage.
The pendulum initially swung hard in the direction of taking a hard line with players after the elevator video emerged in the Ray Rice case. The Commissioner spent a couple of weeks genuinely concerned that he could lose his job in the uproar that ensued, and Roger Goodell undoubtedly resolved at that point that he would never, ever be accused again of going too easy on a player who misbehaves. That trend continued until Elliott’s suspension, which was followed by an all-out effort by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to get rid of Goodell.
Forced to choose between an assault on his job by a mob of outsiders and an assault on his job by one of his 32 bosses, and concerned about the very real impact on ratings of star players not playing, Goodell has now nudged the pendulum in the other direction, far more subtly and gradually than it moved in 2014.
It started with the league’s unspoken lenience for chronic substance-abuse policy violators like Josh Gordon, Martavis Bryant, and Randy Gregory. Although the trio currently is suspended, the league could have tossed each of them out of the sport early in 2018 under the clear terms of the policy. Instead, they each got extra chances until new suspensions were imposed, and the new suspensions weren’t for a minimum of one year (as they should have been). Indeed, there’s a chance that all three will be playing again this year.
Why? Because no one cares about marijuana anymore, and no one will complain that the league is letting guys who smoke pot play football.
The dynamic also has affected the league’s application of the Personal Conduct Policy. The investigation of multiple incidents involving then-Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt was in mothballs before video of him pushing and kicking a woman in the hallway of a Cleveland hotel emerged. Elliot, despite video showing him confronting and possibly shoving a 19-year-old security guard and notwithstanding Elliott’s status as a prior offender (which supposedly is a big deal under the Personal Conduct Policy), wasn’t punished. Now there’s Hill, who escaped any and all punishment with the league issuing a statement that doesn’t even address the menacing remark that prompted the Chiefs to send him away from the team’s offseason program.
Two years ago, Hill wouldn’t have been so fortunate. Now, as the league tries to build on momentum from 2018 TV numbers fueled by an offensive explosion about which the NFL privately bragged to reporters on a near-weekly basis, it’s better for the league to have Hill on the field than it is for the league to not have Hill on the field. Sure, there will be complaints and objections, maybe even a loosely-organized protest. But the potential impact on the league’s business from letting Hill play is smaller than the potential impact on the league’s business from not letting him play, and that’s ultimately all the league cares about.
Football is business. They say “football is family” because it’s good for business to say “football is family,” but football is business. The NFL got into the business of policing the private lives of players for P.R. purposes. The NFL enhanced those efforts in the face of strong objections to the NFL’s failure to be aggressive enough with players who got in trouble away from work. Now, business interests require an approach that entails the application a deeply flawed in-house justice system (a system that isn’t about justice at all) in a way that enhances business.
That’s why Hill wasn’t suspended, and that’s why players in similar situations will receive similar treatment, unless and until the league’s business interests once again compel a more aggressive approach to discipline. At that point, the pendulum will swing again, back in the direction of imposing overly strong punishments.