BY JEREMY R. ABRAMS
Last Monday, Sept. 8, two off-field events in sports garnered more attention than any competition on the field: the Baltimore Ravens released Ray Rice, whom the NFL suspended indefinitely; and the NCAA lifted its postseason and scholarship ban on Penn State University’s football team.
These two events teach an important lesson about the fine line of acceptability in the very public world of professional and collegiate football.
In the Rice incident, TMZ released a full video Monday from inside the elevator that showed Rice punching his then-fianceé in the face. While another security camera video from outside the elevator had been publicly available for some time, the league and the Ravens’ front office claim that they first saw this “new” video on Sept. 8. This would suggest that both parties wanted the public to believe that TMZ either has better investigators or more sway with the video’s owner, the police, or Rice’s attorney. The NFL claimed the video was unavailable, although some reports suggest otherwise.
When given the transcript of the events this summer, the NFL suspended Rice for two games. To put that in perspective, the league’s mandatory first penalty for a drug offense is a four-game suspension. Then, once the video became public, the league suspended Rice indefinitely, even risking violating its own Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) for punishing a player twice for the same incident. The key difference appears to be the publicity given the video. Thus, the NFL’s message to players seems to be that players can get away with a slap on the wrist for their crimes – unless, of course, the crimes are caught on video.
Later in the week, another one of the most popular players in league, Adrian Peterson, was indicted for negligent injury to a child in a case involving his 4-year-old son. In response, the Minnesota Vikings deactivated their star running back, but did not suspend him. After he sat out one game, the Vikings announced he would be reactivated. Then, faced with mounting criticism, the Vikings placed him on the exempt/commissioner’s permission list, a move that will require Peterson to stay away from the team while he addresses his legal issue.
The NFL did not act, following its stated policy of waiting for the legal system to play itself out. Further, the NFL cannot act if a team decides to discipline a player on its own, as was seen in the Riley Cooper episode last season.
One way for the NFL owners to counter the failing leadership of the league would be to punish its own players proactively, which might show fans that the owners won’t tolerate abuse. But in the Peterson case, the Vikings’ stance changed several times and appeared anything but tough.
There is no need to rehash the full extent of the Jerry Sandusky sexual assault scandal and the horrors that took place on campus that led the NCAA to ban Penn State from postseason play for four years and to slash available scholarships. Now, two years into the penalty, the NCAA lifted these sanctions. It acted based on the recommendation of former steroid-busting senator George Mitchell who claims Penn State has made many of the suggested changes from the Freeh Report that implicated the university and employees for failing to act appropriately.
With the removal of the sanctions, Penn State’s football program will have suffered substantially similar consequences to that of Ohio State. For reference, Ohio State was not involved in a scandal that comes close to matching that of Penn State. Ohio State football players got free tattoos and lied about them during the investigation. Therefore, the lesson to be learned is that the NCAA cares more about how schools comply with NCAA recommendations when it breaks rules than the rules themselves.
So the lesson appears to be that the more public and the more recent an incident is, the worse it is. This is a dangerous notion that may have drastic consequences unless serious leadership changes are made.
Jeremy Abrams is a recent graduate of Marquette University Law School, where he focused on sports law. He interned with the Milwaukee Brewers and ESPN Radio’s Milwaukee affiliate and lives in Columbus, Ohio.
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