Thursday, September 4, 2014

Too true to be good

Not that I have to — no one can accuse me of responsible journalism — but I'm revisiting the National Football League's weak punishment of a player who knocked his fiancée unconscious.

I wrote about it in July. Now I'm providing an update, just like a professional would.

Because last week the NFL changed its mind.

Not about Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens star running back who beat his girlfriend. He still "suffers" a puny two-game suspension. Critics widely and rightly howled and the NFL said, "What?! What'd I do?!"

"Oh, that!" the NFL said, answering its own question, and decided to punish any future wife and girlfriend beaters — and any future husband and boyfriend beaters, since it applies to all NFL players and employees — more severely.

The punishment now could be at least six games and commensurate income for the first offense, and loss of a season — at least — for a second offense. A player/employee would have to petition for reinstatement, and may be banned for life.

I'm trying to picture the junior assistant to the assistant for NFL social media marketing analytics, say, facing a six-game suspension for spouse/partner abuse; I guess that makes sense? Permit me to be unfair, but I think that person just gets fired straight away, even before courts weigh in.

Players? I tend to agree with radio talk show hosts Tom Tolbert and Ray Ratto at KNBR 680 (sue me: I sometimes accidentally leave sports radio on after the Giants game has ended) who say justice tilts to favor those who make the NFL money.

Superstar Peyton Manning, quarterback for the Denver Broncos, would not face a six-game suspension for a similar violation, said Ratto. "Mitigating circumstances" would arise suddenly, giving the NFL a way for Manning to play regardless, for the sake of fans and bettors and their money.

Three weeks from now, Ray Rice will still get to play.

"My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families," said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in announcing the policy change. "I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn't get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will."

Besides announcing longer suspensions, Goodell outlined some steps that include better education of rookies and partnerships with abuse prevention programs.

I'm trying to think what I think about all this:
  • Congratulations on your enlightenment?
  • Amazing, because The New York Times indicates Roger Goodell never admits a mistake
  • What took so long?
  • Why are you really doing this?
Travis Waldron of the liberal blog suggests the change of mind is more change of scenery — that it doesn't really change anything, that Goodell already had the power all along to suspend Ray Rice for more games. The policy, Waldron says, spins on the use of the word "could," meaning suspension is no guarantee, and the degree of punishment could depend on a player's value to the NFL.

The players' union followed up Goodell's announcement, emphasizing that players must benefit from due process of law.

As if on cue, San Francisco 49ers player Ray McDonald was arrested on charges of domestic abuse over the weekend, allegedly hitting his pregnant girlfriend. We didn't have to wait long for a test of the NFL's policy change.

Ray McDonald's coach, Jim Harbaugh, told KNBR he has zero tolerance for domestic abuse. He also said let the legal system handle this. Ray McDonald practiced with the team right after the incident.

Employees in other professions are often suspended with pay for similar incidents.
"With very few exceptions," Goodell said, "NFL personnel conduct themselves in an exemplary way."

Statistically, maybe. But those very few exceptions have become my image of the NFL.

The San Diego Union-Tribune even carries a database of arrests and citations of NFL players since 2000 — infractions more serious than speeding tickets — and out rolls a long list, more than 700 separate cases. They include drug possession, driving under the influence, domestic violence, child abuse, assault and battery at nightclubs and strip clubs, fights with police, crashing  cars into houses and other cars, brandishing guns, possessing illegal weapons, ad nauseam.

Not included — because he's not a player — is Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, who was suspended six games and fined $500,000 last week after he pleaded guilty to driving under the influence. He showed up at training camp one day in July handing out $100 bills to fans.

Even tossing out:
  • Pending charges, yet to be resolved in court;
  • Recreational marijuana use — and the NFL just tossed out a player for a year based on its stringent substance abuse standard, despite its legality in two states where the NFL plays, and several more in which crimes for marijuana use are being dropped;
  • Possibly overzealous police officers; and even
  • Domestic abuse charges, which trigger automatic arrests in many states because of the crime's severity;
That's still a lot of mayhem.

The database lists 19 arrests alone for the 49ers — who would be my team except it was last my team when John Brodie was quarterback and Gene Washington was wide receiver and I was eight — including four separate arrests for linebacker Aldon Smith, allegedly for making a bomb threat in an airport, illegally possessing an assault weapon, and two instances of driving under the influence, once when he allegedly drove into a tree.

Last week Smith was suspended for nine games.

I'm trying to sort this out. What is it about football — considerable and analogous mayhem brews in college football too — that engenders this crime wave? Baseball has crime, even spousal abuse, but mostly substance abuse and deeds of stupidity that would be amusing if they weren't so awful, and nowhere near the NFL's volume. Basketball has its trouble too, and some of it coincides at the night clubs and strip clubs with football, and around weapons.

But football is exemplary as a trouble factory.

Is it the gladiator, macho culture of football? Is it a byproduct of the behavior we seem to looooooooooove — love love love! — on the field? Is it an acceptable byproduct? Is it the price someone must pay so that we can our Sundays (and Monday and Thursday nights) for football?

Do we live vicariously through players' reckless lives? Do we secretly want to be like them, not only hitting hard and juking on the field but playing hard and fast off? Do we think the most reckless players off the field make the most ruthless players on?

Why do we forgive — or worse, ignore — behavior we wouldn't wish on ourselves, our families and friends, our neighborhoods, so that we can watch football and buy all the football stuff?

I'd like to think the NFL saw the blatant error of its ways in changing (or appearing to change) its policy on domestic abuse. But I can't help but think it saw the dent in its bottom line.

Money, in all matters, talks.

In other news:

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