Professional sports leagues have extralegal rules that allow them to punish athletes who do things that reflect poorly on their sport. This seems acceptable to me, even though it often results in athletes being fined or suspended for actions that they were never charged with having committed in court. Something similar happens on our college campuses where people can be expelled for things that they haven’t been charged with. These extralegal procedures can be problematic, however, for the exact reasons that we have legal protections assuring that you can face your accusers, hear the evidence against you, and get equal protection under the law. I’m okay with sports leagues and college campuses having higher standards against sexual assault, for example, than a prosecutor. But I recognize that things can go wrong when we set up courts of inquiry in a non-court setting.
When Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocked his girlfriend (now wife) unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator back in March, he was arrested and sentenced to undergo counseling. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell later suspended him for two games. Many people think that the league’s punishment was too lenient, especially when comparing it to other suspensions for different violations of league rules. For example, Cleveland Browns All-Pro wide receiver Josh Gordon has received an indefinite ban from the league (with a minimum of one full season) for testing positive for marijuana. As far as I know, marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug, so the severity of this penalty seems bizarre before we even compare it to the two-game suspension of Ray Rice.
The difference between the two suspensions sends an unintentional message that smoking pot is a vastly more serious matter than knocking your girlfriend unconscious. Both suspensions seem out of whack, with one being too lenient and the other seeming too severe. As a result, Keith Olbermann used his program recently to call for Roger Goodell’s resignation. For his part, Goodell has defended his position by arguing that Ray Rice had been a model NFL player before this incident, that he has established no pattern of domestic violence, and that he has shown contrition and expressed a desire to atone for his behavior by being something of an ambassador against violence against women. What’s more, the victim of this violence not only took some blame for provoking Rice, but testified in his defense in court and to Goodell, and also made the decision to marry Rice after the incident.
Having said all that, the point of having these extralegal rules and procedures is to protect the image of the league, and Goodell has failed rather badly in that mission in this case. I understand why Goodell was inclined to be lenient but his leniency looks incredibly bad in context. To some degree, the proper place for Rice to be punished is in our criminal justice system, but if the league wants to send a message that domestic violence won’t be tolerated it didn’t really succeed. It sent the message that knocking your girlfriend unconscious is considered a relatively minor offense compared to smoking weed.