The NFL Is Running Backwards in Parity for Disciplinary Actions

The leniency of the Ray Rice suspension comes at a time when stronger, rather than lesser penalties, need to be instituted in order to make greater inroads into the psyche of the athlete to be mindful that violence toward women is unacceptable.
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Commissioner Roger Goodell has enormous latitude in levying penalties under the aegis of the league's personal conduct policy. In the Ray Rice domestic violence arrest, in which according to the Atlantic City police report Janay Palmer, his fiancé (now wife) was "rendered unconscious" by the assaultive Rice, a two-game suspension reflects a step backwards in establishing a system of parity for disciplinary actions for professional athletes' transgressions against women parallel to other instances of off-the-field offenses.

Historically, the four major sports leagues have become increasingly proactive in instituting guidelines for suspensions for using illegal substances (which can be categorized as self-destructive behavior), in contrast to baby steps in dealing with destructive behavior toward others. In essence, metaphorically there had existed a type of swiss cheese morality in the code applying to athletes' offenses. To highlight this point it is noteworthy that Daryl Washington, of the Arizona Cardinals, recently was given a season-long suspension for marijuana use, a violation of the league's Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse, in contrast to the one-year probation sentence previously doled out to this same player for assaulting a former girlfriend.

Commissioner Goodell took a huge step forward on the parity issue in 2010, when he slapped a six-game suspension on Pittsburgh Steelers star quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, for an alleged sexual assault incident, even though Roethlisberger had not been charged legally with any transgression. Roethlisberger was the first player to face suspension by Goodell under the personal conduct policy, who had not been arrested or charged with a crime, and the penalty was similar to those for other types of off-the-field offenses. Goodell's action at that time was to be applauded as significant progress, because it sent the message that personal conduct matters, that players have a responsibility to monitor their off-the-field behavior, and that such misconduct would not be tolerated. Most importantly, Goodell's stance conveyed that aggression against women would be taken very seriously by the NFL.

Unfortunately, many players have not internalized this message, and there appears to be an increase in the epidemic of violence toward women by celebrity athletes. For example on July 25, 2014, in addition to the news of the Ray Rice suspension, the media reported three additional cases of athletes and transgressions against women. Greg Hardy, the Pro Bowl defensive end and designated franchise player of the Carolina Panthers, was convicted of domestic violence allegations; Chuck Knoblauch, a former major league baseball star, was charged with assaulting his former wife; and two University of Texas football players, Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander, were charged with felony assault and rape accusations.

The leniency of the Ray Rice suspension comes at a time when stronger, rather than lesser penalties, need to be instituted in order to make greater inroads into the psyche of the athlete to be mindful that violence toward women is unacceptable. Our culture is incrementally moving toward a stance of moral outrage at those who defend abusive athletes on the grounds that there were provocative aspects that contributed to their lashing out physically toward women. Stephen A. Smith, a renowned ESPN commentator, was suspended from his show First Take for suggesting that women need to examine their role in provoking domestic violence incidents. Smith maintained that his remarks were misunderstood, but the suspension remained intact. In response to angry reactions from colleagues, Smith apologized and called the episode "the most egregious mistake" of his career.

Ray Rice has also received a great deal of support from teammates and the Ravens' management from the perspective that his violent reaction was a one time lapse in his otherwise upstanding character. Ravens' coach, John Harbaugh, maintained "It's not a big deal. I stand behind Ray. He's a heck of a guy. He's done everything right since." And Rice himself has belatedly come forward and stated that "my actions that night were totally inexcusable" and dismissed the suggestion that he had been provoked. But, a "boys-will-be-boys" mentality is no longer a viable position in an enlightened and growing segment of our society.

The prevalence of these incidents continues to reflect the dark side of some of our sports heroes. Hopefully, the firestorm of negative responses to the limited suspension of Rice will propel all the professional sports leagues forward in establishing policies that create and enforce parity in the penalties for athletes who cross the line of abuse toward women, alongside of suspensions for violations of their drug policies.

Stanley H. Teitelbaum, Ph.D., psychoanalyst, author of Athletes Who Indulge Their Dark Side and Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols.

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