This Week in the NFL: Ray Rice, Domestic Abuse & the Suspensions Issue

For those of us who suffer the regular jibes about American Football being boring, long-winded, difficult to understand or just rugby with pads, the summer can be a tough time. After the Superbowl in February we’ve done nothing but wait, and we’re used to waiting. We’re used to making do with the drip feed of news offered from the teams, we’re used to becoming bafflingly obsessed with the minutiae of player contracts, and we’re used to casting scorn on those in the league who throw away their golden ticket and get themselves suspended during the lengthy off season. In many ways the time between watching Seattle blow away Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos has been much the same as any other year.

And yet, it really hasn’t. Perhaps it’s because the Superbowl itself, the spectacular centrepiece of this billion-dollar industry, was actually something of a let-down. Like seeing Brazil and Spain torn apart during the World Cup, watching Seattle dominate so completely in the face of an entirely failing game plan on behalf of Denver ceased to be an entertaining contest on the field before the end was even in sight. Or, perhaps the reason this off-season has seemed peculiar to fans is down to the controversies being of an entirely different order this time out. We’re now three weeks into the NFL season, and it’s time to take a look at the major talking points we’ve come across this far, and perhaps look ahead at what to expect in the coming weeks.

It seems right to tackle this up top, because this issue is huge and casts its shadow over the entire league: Baltimore Ravens’ star running back Ray Rice was arrested in March for third-degree aggravated assault, a charge which related to the player punching his fiancée (now wife) inside a casino elevator in Atlantic City. We’re going to try and skirt around the actual legal side of this for a second, because it’s simply not something I’m qualified to pontificate about – but Rice entered into a court-endorsed counselling program to avoid the possibility of a five-year jail sentence. With the legal book closed, the NFL now stepped in to make a judgement on suspending Rice from the league, ultimately deciding that a two game suspension would suffice. The moment the NFL sanctioned that ban, this became a huge deal for fans everywhere – and they spoke with one voice, the league had failed in its duty and the suspension was laughable. Rice’s ban was hastily compared to the seemingly heavy-handed suspensions handed down to other players for breaches which offend the NFL’s audience infinitely less.

Baltimore Ravens’ star running back Ray Rice was arrested in March for third-degree aggravated assault, a charge which related to the player punching his fiancée (now wife) inside a casino elevator in Atlantic City.

At the same time as Rice’s suspension was being handed down, the league was considering (and later confirming) a one-year (16 game) suspension for Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon for a second breach of the NFL’s drug policy – both instances for traces of marijuana in urine samples. Strictly speaking, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did nothing but follow precedent and league rules in administering each suspension, and we should note that Rice is a long way from being the first player to find himself benched for an assault or domestic abuse. So what caused the unprecedented uproar amongst the masses? What made the Ray Rice case the straw to break the camel’s back?

Well, partially the backdrop of that Josh Gordon suspension, but more likely it was the publication of CCTV footage of the incident. It took until September 8th, but celebrity news website TMZ finally obtained and released footage of Rice striking his fiancée, knocking her out cold before dragging her unceremoniously from the elevator. The gruesome footage took the incident from being something unpleasant to a visceral offence against every fan, and left the NFL in a very difficult position. Ultimately, the Ravens sacked Rice and the league moved quickly to suspend him indefinitely from the league which has obviously been welcomed as a positive step and the right decision, but you can’t get away from the fact that the NFL has a problem.

The Ray Rice case isn’t an isolated incident, and even since that indefinite suspension was confirmed there have been a number of other high profile incidents in a similar vein. Adrian Peterson, another star running back playing for Minnesota Vikings, was arrested and charged for ‘reckless or negligent injury to a child’, a case for which there are fewer details but the consensus seems to be that Peterson, a 220lb professional athlete, overly disciplined his son. There has been no movement from the court system yet, but Peterson was eventually deactivated by his employers until the legal matter is closed. Greg Hardy also joins Peterson on the exempt list, whereby players are paid their salary but ineligible to play or practice with their teams, after being convicted for an assault on a female in June. Bizarrely, Hardy actually played in Week 1 of the season before being benched – demonstrating how the league appears to be reacting not to the incidents themselves (after all, NFL players have been getting away with inconsequential suspensions following domestic abuse charges for years) but to the media mood towards these cases in 2014.

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Finally, we have Jonathan Dwyer of the Arizona Cardinals who joins the ranks of those NFL players arrested for domestic abuse after being charged on a number of counts, including aggravated assault involving a minor – where the alleged victim is an 18-month-old child. The Rice case aside, none of these matters has actually been closed by the police yet, and it’s a safe assumption to suggest that if these guys had been arrested last season they’d each be free to play in the NFL right now. And then they’d have been given two-game suspensions after their court appearance. So I suppose it’s a good thing that the teams and the league are finally reacting to this problem. It’s a day late and a dollar short, but at least they’re finally doing something, and that action goes beyond the media reaction too.

It’s a day late and a dollar short, but at least they’re finally doing something, and that action goes beyond the media reaction too.

After getting things so wrong for so long, the NFL has at last decided that suspensions for domestic violence need to be stepped up, so future transgressors will be subject to six game suspensions, or a lifetime ban from the NFL for any repeat offences. It’s yet to be seen how those new guidelines will apply to Peterson, Hardy or Dwyer, and we certainly won’t find out until the legal portion of their sagas is wrapped up. Additionally, the Josh Gordon case which we mentioned earlier, the one that could be seen as the catalyst to a new policy on domestic abuse has also brought about discussion on the heavy handed drug suspensions in the NFL.

Along with the NFL Players Association, league officials have just about finalised (as of September 18th) new rules for steroid abuse, which also soften the punishments for some recreational drug use. While the league is still a long way from encouraging its players to get high, a number of currently suspended players will be eligible to return under the new policy. Wes Welker will return to Superbowl runners-up Denver Broncos while Orlando Scandrick and Stedman Bailey may return to their respective teams too. Gordon, who has served two of his 16 game suspension would see that cut to 10, meaning he could return to the field in mid-November rather than waiting until September 2015.

Importantly, even those players who remain suspended, like Gordon, will be eligible to return to their team facilities to participate in practise and team activities. And that’s more important than it might first appear. Young American Football players live an entirely ridiculous life, from their college programmes which put education second to elite athletic performance to the day they’re drafted into the league and beyond, where they will earn unfathomable amounts of money. A lot of these guys come from backgrounds where drug use is an inescapable part of everyday life, and joining a professional football programme helps to break that cycle for them. Reporting to practise every day, taking part in disciplined workouts and facing the rigours physical challenges of the NFL is key to keeping those who come into the league with habitual drug histories clean enough to continue competing. Cutting them off and banning them from all forms of practise only casts players back into a situation where they’ll reoffend, and cuts short promising careers.

The NFL is getting better at understanding the many discipline problems the league faces, and while we all know it’s all far too late we should at least appreciate that for now, it seems like the sport is heading towards a much cleaner and respectable future – one where those long summers without football aren’t quite so depressing.

James Hirst

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21-year-old Ameri-Czech student of Politics & Economics at the University of Nottingham. Sports Editor @impactmagazine. FFC worshipper. European.

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