The National Football League has spent the past few weeks in the media spotlight, but perhaps more so for disciplinary reasons than for miraculous touchdowns, bright new running backs, or impressive though aging quarterbacks. Who hasn’t heard about the numerous legal and personal issues associated with Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Josh Gordon, or Wes Welker? Locally, Arizona Cardinal’s RB Jonathan Dwyer was arrested from an incident that allegedly occurred this summer; Bruce Arians, the head coach emphatically stated in a press conference last week: “Until he is exonerated, he will not be a member of this football team.” Amidst all of this, one of the common refrains is that these NFL players face significant punishments that could greatly exceed penalties from a court. Is that really fair?
First things first: the National Football League is a private organization and can impose its own rules and regulations on its employees, and yes, the players are technically its employees. The NFL and NFLPA work together to create standard terms of employment that cover everything from prohibiting touchdown celebrations to off-season workout regimen to substance abuse and criminal action consequences. So you’re talented enough to play professional football? You want to get paid a hefty salary? Then realize that you will be in the public eye, and you are always a representative of yourself, your team, and the NFL; sign a contract, accept the terms, and abide by the contract—simple, right?
Keep in mind, too, that the NFL is far from being the only profession that establishes stringent requirements on its members, pre-adjudication. Those in the medical profession can lose their licenses for criminal violations and be prohibited from practicing medicine again. In fact, upon arrest for DUI, it is quite common for an Arizona physician to be subject to substance abuse screening and treatment, before any court adjudication. An attorney with certain criminal charges on her record may never be permitted to practice law, even if she passes the bar exam. Numerous government jobs require security clearances that will be revoked if an employee gets a conviction. Facing more serious consequences than “John Q Public,” the only difference is that there aren’t hordes of reporters publicizing every indiscretion that, say, a dentist or a nurse might allegedly have committed.
The “rash” of recent NFL arrests underscores the bigger concern for that entity; the NFL appears to have been reactionary, devoid of substantive domestic violence policies until faced with a Ray Rice type of situation. NFL players are more likely to get arrested for a DUI than any other crime, and this, combined with years of performance-enhancing drug concerns, has pushed the NFL to create and reform its substance abuse policies. What is less certain is whether there were clear policies to address crimes of other natures, such as domestic violence or child endangerment prior to the recent media frenzy. What would’ve happened if the Ray Rice video was never “leaked”?
On the flip side of this is our rule of our guaranteed constitutional right to remain “innocent until proven guilty.” Also, where does Due Process fit in when the NFL is developing rules on the fly and retroactively applying them in a draconian fashion? The Adrian Peterson case is curious from a legal perspective; should a player face penalties, such as an indefinite suspension, before he has been convicted and before a set policy is in place? Unfortunately, the Constitution doesn’t guarantee the right to be free from all collateral consequences while awaiting our day in court, and this can often be a difficult balancing act for any private business that has duties to its constituents. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s statement in Reuters’ article “Goodell Tackles NFL Domestic Abuse Crisis with Vow to Reform” proves enlightening as to his position: “I feel passionately that working in the NFL in any capacity is a privilege, something that we must earn every day and never take for granted.” While this statement may be taken at face value, actions, in the form of a clear and substantive program relating to Domestic Violence, speak louder than words. The NFL is a very popular product, but the issues discussed here illustrate that it, as well as its players, are far from perfect, no matter how much money stands to be made in the process.