The NFL thinks wife-beating is less serious than pot-smoking.
At least, that's the impression you would get from the way the league has handled off-field infractions of late, treating drugs like an abominable scourge and domestic violence as nothing more than a minor, private incident.
That glaring disparity was laid bare Thursday, when the NFL announced a meager two-game suspension for Ravens running back Ray Rice, who in February was charged with assaulting his wife, then-fiancée, Janay Palmer. Rice was caught on camera dragging an unconscious Palmer out of an elevator in an Atlantic City casino. Though police claimed to also have footage of Rice knocking her unconscious, he pleaded not guilty.
Rice eventually issued a boilerplate mea culpa. His wife apologized for her "role in that night" too. And in May, Rice avoided trial by entering a diversion program that included mandatory counseling.
In handing down the punishment, the NFL puffed its chest and issued a Deeply Serious statement explaining how committed it was to the "integrity" of the game. The NFL Network backed up league brass, trumpeteing the NFL's "iron fist," while Ravens coach John Harbaugh praised Rice for taking responsibility.
"I think that's good for kids to understand it works that way." pic.twitter.com/6tbCuZOe4M
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) July 24, 2014
See, children, this is how it works: You beat your wife, say "oopsie, my bad," and you are welcomed back to the game.
But Rice's suspension is even more maddening given how capriciously the NFL has handled other crimes.
The league booted Michael Vick indefinitely for dog fighting, though after his jail time Vick effectively served a two-game suspension. Ben Roethlisberger got six games, reduced to four, for an alleged sexual assault. Meanwhile, Terrelle Pryor served five games for signing a few autographs when he was still in college because, you guessed it, "integrity" something something.
There is absolutely no consistency in how the league metes out punishment for various "personal conduct" crimes, as this handy chart from Sports on Earth shows.
This is particularly appalling given the league's handling of nonperformance-enhancing drugs under its substance abuse policy. Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon earned a two-game suspension for violating that policy last year. He's now facing a season-long ban for a second positive test, this one for marijuana. Jaguars receiver Ace Sanders is looking at a four-game suspension for his second substance abuse violation. And last year, fellow Jags wideout Justin Blackmon, who has a history of DUIs, was suspended indefinitely for substance abuse.
Yes, there is a distinction between criminal acts and violations of the league's proscribed rules, rules that carry specific — if arbitrary — punishments. But if the justification for punishing each kind of off-field crime is that it's necessary to defend the game's "integrity" and ensure players act as role models, then the league is putting these disparate crimes under the same moral rubric. And there is an array of crimes that can be dealt with under the nebulous "personal conduct" category, under which the NFL has broader authority to penalize as it sees fit.
It's not only the league, but the teams too. Also on Thursday, the Panthers indicated they would not suspend defensive end Greg Hardy, who was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend, because they wanted to "respect the legal process."
And in Ray Rice, the league has sent a clear signal: If you're going to commit a crime, you'd be better off hitting your spouse than hitting a bong.