The NFL is finding out just how complicated domestic violence punishments can be
In 2014, after Ray Rice was caught on camera punching his then-fiancée in an elevator, the NFL implemented a new personal conduct policy; violations that involved domestic violence would be addressed with a "baseline" six-game suspension. The league also hired Todd Jones as chief disciplinary officer in March 2015. The NFL's soul-searching had been replaced by action and new policy.
A lot has changed since then, and the NFL's hard line on consequences isn't quite as clear as it once seemed. Just take a look at how the policy has evolved.
Last week, Giants kicker Josh Brown received a one-game suspension because of a May 2015 incident in which police were called to his residence in Washington state and he was arrested. The charge, assault fourth degree/domestic violence, was later dropped.
Since the six-game suspension language was added to the personal conduct policy, there have been nine NFL suspensions potentially related to domestic violence. In all but two of those cases, the league has upheld suspensions that have been fewer than six games, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That's despite the fact NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in 2014 that "our standards, and the consequences of falling short, must be clear, consistent and current," and that consequences "must be implemented through procedures that are fair and transparent."
Earlier this month, free-agent tight end Andrew Quarless received a two-game suspension for a July 2015 incident that involved firing a gun into the air after an argument with a woman. Quarless was fined and sentenced to probation.
Before that, Washington linebacker Junior Galette got two games for a domestic violence-related case in which charges were dropped. There was another incident where a man who appeared to be Galette threatened people on a beach by whipping a belt.
And last year, the NFL suspended Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy for 10 games after an independent investigation found that he had used physical force against his former girlfriend "in at least four instances." The suspension was later reduced to four games on appeal.
Jonathan Dwyer was suspended for three games after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge in an incident where he allegedly head-butted his wife and broke her nose. (The incident took place in 2014 before the new policy was in place, although the suspension came after.) Two players, Jermaine Cunningham and Rodney Austin, received six-game suspensions in September 2015. Later in the season, Quincy Enunwa and Joseph Randle got four games apiece.
The NFL is finding that navigating the murky waters of domestic violence is complicated and not as clear-cut as a six-game baseline implies. Factors such as guns and a history of violence haven't been increasing the length of suspensions as spelled out in the updated conduct policy. And other considerations, such as victim cooperation (or lack thereof), seem to be working in favor of the players.
Jones said the expectation that every player who violates that element of the policy gets a six-game minimum suspension isn't helpful, because each case is different.
"You asked me, 'Is there something we should have more consideration of?'" Jones said, "and that's not setting false expectations given 18 months of history."
Implementing the domestic violence policy has been a challenge, Jones said. The NFL's conduct policy states that consideration would be given to any aggravating or mitigating factors in incidents of violations that involve domestic violence. But after the NFL Players Association challenged parts of the new code, the league has given more weight to a player's expectation of due process and fairness in implementing it.
The NFL can't subpoena players, and the NFLPA disputed both the grounds for and the application of the new blanket standards. Jones also noted that some of the incidents listed above took place before the new policy was in place (Dwyer), and others might be violence, but not necessarily domestic violence (Galette).
"[People] see six games for DV without an understanding of -- and I don't think we need to set all these definitions out, but we need to talk about it -- is this domestic violence or isn't it? Just because it involves gender dynamics doesn't mean it automatically kicks in an incident of domestic violence," Jones said.
Brown's one-game suspension was mitigated by a lack of clarity about what happened and a lack of cooperation from law enforcement and witnesses, Jones said. (Since Brown's suspension was announced, an additional incident has been uncovered.)
"It's really hard, and often, victims aren't forthcoming," said Anna Isaacson, NFL vice president of social responsibility.
Getting to the truth of what happened during an incident can be complicated when a victim doesn't cooperate, something domestic violence experts and the legal system have recognized for years. After the league consulted with many domestic violence experts, the new policy was meant to take into account the reluctance that a man or woman might have in coming forward, perhaps fearing retaliation or economic consequences. Legal charges or consequences are expressly not a prerequisite for a violation to be identified.
"Not being able to talk to people isn't a mitigating factor. That's an investigation issue," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. "If the intention of the NFL was to abide by what law enforcement or the judicial system did or didn't do, then that should have been the statement from the beginning."
But the league may have unintentionally incentivized players to try to keep witnesses and victims from coming forward. If the player's version is the only one the NFL can get, then that version might stand.
Dan Werly, a sports lawyer and Charleston School of Law professor, says the commissioner has the ability to hear the appeal of domestic violence suspensions, and the courts have granted the league wide discretion in setting a policy as long as it is consistent in applying it.
"It's bizarre because we see Roger Goodell going the other way and getting tougher on non-domestic violence cases," Werly said.
Jones said NFL investigations into its players are "workplace investigations," which means they have to abide by processes laid out by the National Labor Relations Act.
And some players haven't been penalized. In two high-profile incidents, Johnny Manziel and Ray McDonald were investigated and no violations were found. Both men went on to have additional incidents. McDonald was arrested again and subsequently charged with domestic violence. Manziel faces a charge in Dallas County after allegedly rupturing his then-girlfriend's eardrum. Neither player is currently in the league.
But with the legal record now in Manziel's case, Jones emphasizes the NFL's commitment to consequences.
"Manziel's got a six-game suspension that's hanging," Jones said. "If a club ever rolls the dice and brings him on board, he's got a six-game suspension that's hanging right now."
The NFL has done a lot to strengthen the education of players and, by extension, fans, about the effects of violence and assault. The league has put people in place to evaluate cases and recommend discipline. And still, the NFL isn't finding that task to be any easier than it was to begin with.