Josh Brown's one-game suspension adds dangerous gray area to NFL conduct policy

AP/Bill Kostroun

Giants kicker Josh Brown has been suspended for one game following a domestic violence incident in 2015.

When the NFL came out with its new personal conduct policy in 2014, it stated that violations of the policy involving domestic violence would get a "baseline" six-game suspension for a first offense, considering any aggravating or mitigating factors.

On Wednesday, the NFL announced a one-game suspension for kicker Josh Brown, stemming from a domestic violence arrest last year. The police report, which was obtained by ESPN, is disturbing. On May 22, 2015 (the second straight night the police were called to their house), police took the statement of the alleged victim, who claimed there was a history of abuse that included 20 incidents of physical violence. The officer on the scene wrote in his report that he believed Brown assaulted her that night.

"She appeared to be genuinely scared of her husband Joshua," the officer wrote. "She seemed very embarrassed to tell me the details of her husbands [sic] history of abusing her."

Five days later, Brown said, the charges were dropped.

Brown, 37, said he informed the Giants of the charge the day of the incident, and a team spokesman confirmed they knew of the incident. The Giants said they did not conduct their own investigation into the arrest, but they said they were aware of the specifics of the report and re-signed Brown during an active NFL investigation. A source told ESPN's Dan Graziano the victim refused multiple requests to be interviewed by the NFL for its investigation.

Brown and the NFL Players Association appealed that one-game suspension, and arbiter Harold Henderson recently upheld the punishment.

A one-game suspension is curious and hearkens back to the days when domestic violence wasn't taken seriously. Of course things have changed, and respected former prosecutor Lisa Friel vetted Brown's case for the NFL and recommended one game. As part of investigating, the NFL would have looked up police reports, sought out a record of past infractions and interviewed witnesses. But what could be the factor that mitigates five games from the baseline?

The NFL's code of conduct policy names the aggravating factors that could increase a suspension, such as use of a gun or harming a pregnant partner. But the league doesn't specify or name any mitigating factors.

"What this case shows is that domestic violence is an incredibly complex and complicated issue," said Anna Isaacson, the NFL's vice president of social responsibility. "It would be wonderful if it was easy to explain. We don't profess to know everything, but we profess to try to get it right. I hope that what we've done in the last two years shows that we're committed to this issue and fans can trust that."

The issue is, it isn't easy for fans, players or personnel to determine what mitigates a penalty, or how a baseline of six games can be whittled down to one. The NFL seemingly set a firm policy, and this suspension casts some doubt on how porous that baseline is.

Handing down a one-game suspension without explaining why it's so brief undermines the very point of the revamped code of conduct.
Jane McManus

Brown, the league and the NFL Player's Association have all declined to name the mitigating factors in this case.

"Everybody's known, everybody's been a part of it," Brown said. "You know, guys have been very supportive, guys from around the league, ex-coaches, players that know my character. I've been very supported through the process. Like we said, this has been a year and I've had to play with this over my head, and I've continued to play well and I will continue to play well."

Giants head coach Ben McAdoo reiterated his hard line on domestic violence -- while at the same time offering support for Brown.

"We support the league office in their decision and their stance on personal conduct," McAdoo said. "I do support Josh as a man, a father, and a player. We treat these situations on a case-by-case basis.

But there's no harmony between zero tolerance and signing players who are being investigated for domestic violence. The one-game suspension without a more concrete explanation undermines the very point of the revamped code of conduct. Players and personnel need a firm understanding of what constitutes a penalty. How easy will it be for the next player arrested on a charge to point to Brown's case as a new metric?

"The process was put into place," said Rita Smith, an activist who consults with the NFL on issues of domestic violence and education. "Lisa Friel does what she does, and a one-game suspension was what they found. I'm sure there are going to be some 'this isn't serious' reactions in my own field. I'll have to account for that."

Brown's one-game suspension adds a shade of gray to the NFL's domestic violence policy and allows for more judgment calls, when the initial idea was to set a firm standard and be clear about it.

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