By Erik Helmle
As professional athletes making millions of dollars, National Football League players find themselves placed in the spotlight every day. If they say one a word out of turnanything unrehearsed, they can face punishment from the league ranging from a monetary fine to suspension. The contract that a player signs when he enters the NFL contains a plethora of stipulations regarding personal conduct. This personal conduct policy has seen many changes over the years as the game has evolved, from forbidding the use of performance enhancing substances and illegal drugs to language use and criticism of NFL officials. The policy does not necessarily provide detailed punishments, which leaves the degree of consequence for individual offenses at the discretion of the league’s commissioner.
This apparent flaw in the policy made national headlines when TMZ news network reported that Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens was seen on surveillance video dragging the body of his unconscious fiancé Janay Palmer, now Janay Rice, out of a hotel elevator in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She had been punched in the face by Rice while in the elevator, which is an act of domestic violence. After the surveillance footage was brought forth, Rice was handed a two-game suspension for a violation of the league’s personal conduct policy. The policy did not specifically name a penalty for domestic violence against a spouse or family member, so it was left up to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to make an appropriate judgment for the crime. The punishment included court-mandated counseling for Rice and his fiancé. This was considered reasonable until TMZ released another video of the actual blow that knocked Janay unconscious, at which point the media and the public whipped the issue into a firestorm. Rice was suspended by the NFL indefinitely, the Ravens cancelled his contract, and Goodell came under heavy pressure to amend the personal conduct policy.
Rice was not the only athlete who ended up being suspended by the NFL for domestic violence in 2014. Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers was accused of beating and threatening to kill his then-girlfriend, was formally charged by police, and convicted of a short prison sentence and other punishments in July of that year. However, the charges and convictions were dropped after the victim refused to cooperate with law enforcement officials in the process of the trial being brought to a jury. Hardy found himself on the NFL Commissioner’s “Exempt List,” which is essentially a league-mandated suspension. Other notable NFL stars who were placed on this list for domestic violence charges in the weeks after Rice’s suspension were the San Francisco 49ers’ Ray McDonald and the Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson, who were both released by their teams shortly after the fact.
After the season ended, Goodell announced the addition of a heavily revised domestic violence policy within the personal conduct policy clause in NFL player, coach, and staff contracts. Those placed on the Exempt List were removed, and formal suspensions were dealt out to those that the NFL felt had violated the policy. Hardy was given a 10-game suspension in the beginning of the 2015 season and Rice reached a settlement with the Ravens for funds lost due to the illegal cancellation of his contract and the use of “Double Jeopardy” by the NFL to suspend him twice for the same violation.
In the off-season, the Dallas Cowboys signed Hardy to a one-year contract. Of the athletes implicated in the domestic violence scandal of the previous season, Hardy’s release was the most publicized after Rice’s. Described by former teammates and coaches as aggressive and physically intimidating, Hardy has a checkered past when it comes to team disruption and generally unfriendly behavior. His signing was controversial, but his successful appeal that reduced the suspension sentence from 10 games to four was even more infuriating for social justice advocates and others who thought he recieved the proper punishment. Still as dominant as ever, the Cowboys intended to use his skills to bolster their defense. To this end Hardy has been quite effective, with 4 sacks and 14 solo tackles in just five games. However, the Cowboys organization has continued to be haunted by Hardy’s past. Photos of the beating he allegedly carried out on his ex-girlfriend were posted online and the team has been forced to deal with the additional media attention that the issue has brought. Hardy himself denies the accusations, but many feel that the evidence speaks for itself.
As of Nov. 11, 2015, players, with the exception of Rice, who were suspended or removed from their teams due to the domestic violence scandals are either currently on active rosters or were signed in the off-season by another team. Rice has not even attended tryouts for another team, which seems odd considering Rice’s relative skill, but not terribly surprising because teams want to avoid the extra attention and controversy by not signing a player who still represents domestic violence.
The situation with the Cowboys serves as a reminder of this as Hardy’s skill and surprisingly strong showing by the second-string players on the team, the Cowboys have yet to win a single game with him on the field. Since Hardy was signed, both Dez Bryant and Tony Romo have missed long stretches of games due to injuries and the Cowboys have lost games by varying margins. Some think that these losses are due to the absence of a capable quarterback, but others insist it is some kind of ‘bad karma’ that has come around to the Cowboys due to the signing. This may not be true, but the Cowboys’ seven straight losses loom large.