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From a financial standpoint, at least, the Chicago Bears' signing of defensive lineman Ray McDonald in March appeared to be a riskless acquisition. There was no guaranteed money in his contract, so if necessary, a release would clear his full $1.037 million salary-cap hit.
The Bears took that option Monday, hours after McDonald was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence and child endangerment, his second arrest in the past nine months. He was also accused in December of sexual assault, but no charges have been filed. (The case remains open.)
McDonald faces an NFL suspension, and at 30, his career might be over. But what about the Bears? Should they be allowed to move on after issuing a three-sentence statement and facing a few days of public scrutiny? Given the NFL's focus on player conduct in recent years, should franchises also bear some risk and responsibility when employing repeat offenders?
As it turns out, the NFL has a club-remittance policy that few people know about, one designed to extract a measure of accountability from teams for the conduct of their players. Whether it is strong enough is open to debate, however. The policy caps franchise discipline at $500,000 in fines per year; for the moment, the Bears would be on the hook for no more than a $150,000 fine.
There are several independent sections to this policy, but the portion that applies here is when players are suspended for personal conduct violations or for testing positive to a banned substance.
Here's how the NFL calculates discipline over the course of a year:
One suspension: no remittance due
Two suspensions: 15 percent of suspended players' base salaries during time of suspension, up to $150,000
Three suspensions: 25 percent of same, up to $250,000
Four or more suspensions: 33 percent of same, up to $500,000.
The NFL doesn't reconcile these figures until the end of the postseason, meaning the Bears won't know their fate until February 2016. At the moment, they have one incident on their 2015 "docket": free-agent offensive lineman Eben Britton, who received a four-game suspension this past spring for violations that occurred when he was on the Bears' roster in 2014. A McDonald suspension would be the Bears' second of 2015, triggering the 15 percent level.
The maximum fines are nothing for us to dismiss, and the league reserves the right to fine teams additionally if they don't meet its best-practices requirements to educate and prevent problems. Still, they're a small fraction of revenue for franchises that make up part of a $12 billion industry.
We of course can't document when this policy has deterred teams from signing a player with a troubled past, and the Bears did not respond to a question on whether they considered it before acquiring McDonald. Overall, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said: "We believe it has been effective in ensuring additional accountability for misconduct under those policies. We review and update our policies on a regular basis with an eye toward ongoing improvement."
Larger fines might be in order. It also might make sense to incorporate a salary-cap penalty to motivate cash-flush teams. A $150,000 fine might not matter to an NFL franchise, but a $5 million cap loss might.
NFL teams can't possibly monitor and correct their players' off-the-field lives at all times, especially in the offseason. But they should have incentive, in the form of impactful discipline, to avoid the kind of situation the Bears found themselves in this weekend. Did the Bears weigh the possibility of a $150,000 NFL fine if McDonald was suspended on their watch? Even if they did, it would have hardly mattered.