NFL domestic violence stance isn't blanket policy you thought it was

NFL just set new precedent with Brown's one-game suspension (1:53)

Jane McManus explains why the NFL could be up against a barrage of questions after suspending Giants kicker Josh Brown for only one game for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, a violation that would normally call for a six-game suspension. (1:53)

In December 2014, the NFL issued a new domestic violence policy that was immediately hailed as a strong response to a smoldering three-month fiasco.

If only we had read it first.

It's true that the policy calls for "a suspension without pay of six games for a first offense." But five additional words, appearing immediately thereafter, have proved to be just as important. It's why, on at least two occasions -- most recently this week with New York Giants kicker Josh Brown -- an NFL player has received less than a six-game punishment for domestic violence violations.

First-time offenders will receive "consideration given to mitigating factors," the policy goes on to promise. In English, that means six games is the starting point -- a baseline -- for league administrators to begin their assessment of discipline. The final number can be higher or lower, depending on the league's judgment of the collective facts in each case.

This surely has come as a disappointment to those who thought the NFL had fashioned a hard-line, zero-tolerance, example-setting policy that would establish a new paradigm for corporate treatment of domestic violence. But it's a reality that we all should have grasped long ago amid the complexities of domestic violence and the difficulty of satisfactorily knowing the full facts of an incident -- especially when there is no criminal conviction or video evidence.

This chapter began when video surveillance proved that a two-game suspension for then-Baltimore Ravens tailback Ray Rice was woefully inadequate relative to his actions. The initial discipline, which matched previous precedent for first-time offenders, exposed the shortcomings of the NFL's old policy. But while it sounded great that a first-time offender would be suspended six games in all ensuing cases, and a second offense would lead to a lifetime ban, the actual policy is now clear.

The NFL invoked "mitigating circumstances" in Brown's case, saying in a statement Friday that his ex-wife would not speak to investigators and that local police would not provide information about reports of additional incidents. In the end, the NFL said it could consider only one documented incident for which no charges were filed.

Last season, the NFL issued a four-game suspension to New York Jets receiver Quincy Enunwa rather than six because of his cooperation with league investigators, according to reporting from ESPN's Jane McManus.

You could argue that the scale of domestic violence shouldn't matter. If an NFL player so much as touches a woman, the theory goes, he should face harsh consequences. One time it could be a forceful grab of the arm. Another time, it might be a punch.

But to be clear, and to dispel any lingering myths, that's not the policy the NFL has adopted. It is more elastic and, dare I say, more cognizant of reality. It requires more subjective judgment from league administrators, and thus more room to question the final decision, but it is most certainly not the blanket approach it appeared to be when first revealed. So it goes.