Thanks to a number of high-profile stories and controversies, the NFL’s use of player discipline has become as big a story as the games themselves. From drug abuse to domestic violence, seemingly every disciplinary decision draws intense media focus. As a powerful cultural institution, the NFL plays a part in framing these issues for the public, for better or worse. The public nature of these punishments has turned the NFL into something of a legislative authority, which has created conflict between the league and its players, most of whom are young Black males. However, through player dissent and social media backlash, the NFL has been pushed onto the defensive, and forced to change the way it handles player punishment.
By handing out a pair of high-profile suspensions in the 2014 offseason, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell invited a wave of criticism onto the league’s disciplinary system. On July 24, 2014, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was suspended by the league for 2 games for “violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy following [an] offseason arrest for domestic violence” (ESPN, 2014). The suspension came over five months after TMZ released a video of Rice dragging his unconscious fiancee, Janay Palmer, out of an elevator (Bien, 2014). A month later, the NFL suspended Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon for the entire 2014 season, for violating the league’s substance abuse policy by failing a drug test for marijuana (Brady, 2014). Goodell faced immediate backlash from fans and media, with many claiming Goodell had established a precedent that “Domestic violence arrests are bad but positive drug tests are worse” (Bellware, 2014). Fox Sports reporter Clay Travis went as far as to say “anyone with a functional brain knows the NFL’s player suspension system is broken” (Bellware, 2014). A major issue here for the league is the quantifiable nature of its punishments, which in this case gives different weight to two different social issues. By exercising its power on off-field incidents, the league cannot avoid providing social commentary, which has created increasing tensions with fans and players.
The NFL’s ability to govern these issues stems back to 1919, when a court ruled that the commissioner of the MLB had “almost unlimited discretion in… a situation detrimental to the national game of baseball” (Kim & Parlow, 2009, p.576). Other professional leagues, including the NFL, later adopted similar regulations. In addition, individual contracts and the league’s collective bargaining agreement often give the league more discretion, as in the case of “good moral character” clauses in some contracts (p.577). In short, the NFL has extreme judicial authority over the actions of its players, and often exercises this power in cases that have real legal consequences as well. This is important because the NFL is an extremely powerful and influential cultural creator. To view it through the lens of political economy, the league represents a cultural centre of wealth and power, and uses its platform to “[advance its] interests by controlling public “consciousness”” (Corrigan, 2014, p.43). As a football fan, I hear more about drug abuse and subsequent punishment in the NFL than in any other context, and as a result information from those stories forms a major portion of my perspective on the matter. Therefore, when the NFL involves itself in legal matters, it does more than just keep its athletes in line, it influences public opinion on the issues at hand, including drug abuse and domestic violence.
Dylan Bennett refers to NFL players’ drug punishments as “arguably the most public practice of employer punishment in the United States” (Bennett, 2012, p.160-61). The league implemented its current drug testing and punishment system in 1983, after repeated embarrassing media stories of drug abuse by players and distribution by trainers (p.162). This system is built upon a legal basis, as all illegal drug use counts equally as drug abuse (p.162), explaining the league’s harsh stance against marijuana. However, as Bennett notes, this comparison breaks down when it comes to how offences are punished. In the case of Josh Gordon, the league denied Gordon access to his job and income for what the law would consider a misdemeanour, “whereas in a criminal context a person needs to commit felonies to be denied fundamental liberties” (p.172). As marijuana moves towards legalization in the United States, the NFL’s punitive system for drug abuse seems out of touch with public life, especially in comparison with its’ treatment of domestic violence cases.
A few months after the NFL suspended Ray Rice for 2 games, another video of the incident surfaced on TMZ, this one showing Rice punch his fiancee in the face, knocking her unconscious (Bien, 2014). That same day, the Ravens released Rice from his contract, and the NFL suspended him indefinitely (Bien, 2014). Commissioner Goodell admitted that his “decision led the public to question [the NFL]’s sincerity, commitment, and whether [the league] understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families” while saying about the decision “I didn’t get it right” (Rosenthal, 2014). Yet the question becomes, if video evidence of Rice knocking Palmer unconscious was enough to merit an indefinite suspension, what exactly did the league think had happened when they originally gave Rice a 2-game ban? Goodell’s mishandling of this situation became another black mark on the league’s troubled history of dealing with domestic violence. Before 1997, the NFL did not discipline any players who had been convicted of domestic abuse. This was in large part because many people felt that domestic violence was “a problem the NFL should leave for the criminal justice system to address” (Brown, 2016). However, the league introduced a new conduct policy in 1997, and Goodell expanded it into the “Personal Conduct Policy (PCP)” in 2000, which would allow the league to discipline offenders “even in the absence of criminal charges” (Brown, 2016). Despite this, public perception remains that “players charged with domestic violence routinely received considerably lighter punishments than players accused of other offenses” (Pennington & Eder, 2016).
While the NFL’s treatment of drug abuse and domestic violence often come into conflict with each other, we can observe that the two have something in common. That is, people tend to compare how the NFL treats them with how they are treated in a court of law. One of the factors that creates this conflict is unique space that NFL discipline occupies in between public and private punishment. The punishment is private because it is imposed by a corporation rather than the state (Kim & Parlow, 2009, p.587), yet unlike most employers the NFL often chooses to make punishment a public spectacle, in order to reassure fans that “the league is accountable to to the public for the misbehaviour of its athletes” (p.593). Professional sports leagues seek to bolster their image by punishing immoral or illegal behaviour, yet as we have seen, the act of passing judgment can backfire when punishments for different offences are compared. The use of public discipline causes the NFL to mirror the legal system, where sentences are debated and highly publicized. As a result, the NFL turns itself into a pseudo legislative authority, which increases tensions not only in the public and media, but also between the league and its players.
Phillip Cunningham writes that many of the NFL’s rules and sanctions, such as a strict “business-casual” dress code, are targeted towards Black athletes, in what he calls “a series of power-plays between White managerial forces and Black athletes” (Cunningham, 2009, p.40). Cunningham claims that a long list of crimes committed by notable Black athletes has led to a perception called the “Black athletic criminal” (p.41). By this, Cunningham suggests that the Black athlete and Black criminal are seen as one and the same, and are treated this way by league administrators. One example is former NFL player Michael Vick, who was convicted of operating a dog-fighting ring and sent to prison (Piquero et al., 2011, p.535). Vick was one of the league’s brightest stars at the time, which drew even more publicity to his case. Cunningham also argues that by enforcing policies like a dress code, and cutting down on player celebrations, supports traditional values of the working class, often leaving Black athletes unable to assimilate (p.42). In other words, Black athletes are racialized as the league resists what critic Jason Whitlock disturbingly calls “the rebellion and buffoonery of hip hop culture” (as cited in Cunningham, 2009, p.43). When we take into account the NFL’s judicial power to discipline players, the system bears resemblance to the American legislative system, with powerful White men exercising authority over young Black males, aided by media like Whitlock who frame Black athletes as dangerous or rebellious.
A prime example of Black athlete media framing occurred following the 2014 NFC Championship Game, when Seattle Seahawks player Richard Sherman gave a memorable post-game interview, in which he passionately declared himself the best player at his position and mocked his opponent. Joe Tompkins notes that on social media, many people came to Sherman’s defense following a number of racist tweets that, in general, characterized Sherman as a “thug” (Tompkins, 2016, p.292). He suggests that the racist tweets came from concern over a threat to the “White normative framework of “proper “sportsmanship”” (p.300). A common narrative in defending Sherman positions him as a “racialized Man of Enterprise,” who “[escaped] the ghetto” through hard work and determination (p.301). This effectively “protects systems of racial dis/advantage under the cloak of individual success” (p.301). In other words, systemic inequalities are overlooked, while Black success is only permitted on an individual basis. Thus the narrative can soothe anxieties while maintaining the status quo, and the idea that even the most industrious and successful Black athletes must still overcome the hardships of growing up “in the ghetto.” As a result, even those coming to Sherman’s defence reinforce the stereotype of the “thug” and the “Black athletic criminal,” by positioning Sherman as a rare exception. As long as these perceptions continue, and the Black athlete remains linked with the Black criminal, the NFL’s punitive process will still mirror tensions between young Black males and the American legislative system. However, I would argue that social media can occasionally do more than reinforce the current system, as evidenced by the public response to the Ray Rice controversy, as well as Twitter activity from NFL players.
Following the events of the Ray Rice controversy, victims of domestic violence took to Twitter in a show of unity, brought together by the hashtag #WhyIStayed (Clark, 2016, p.788). The movement started with Twitter user Beverly Gooden, who told her story of being a victim of domestic abuse through a series of Tweets that quickly generated hundreds of retweets and responses (p.795). Rosemary Clark argues that this movement came from “frustration with mainstream media discourse and the NFL” (p.794), in particular victim blaming and defending the abuser. By suspending Rice for only two games, and later claiming it did not have all of the facts, the league was an active participant in creating that narrative which Gooden and so many others challenged. Here we see an example of social media providing a platform to express disagreement with the NFL’s take on a socially and legally important matter. The NFL’s social and judicial authority is weakened by a simple hashtag, created by one person who was dissatisfied with its actions. In addition to social media movements, NFL players have begun publicly challenging the league’s decisions. In a column for the Player’s Tribune, Richard Sherman wrote that Roger Goodell “has too much power” and “needs help dealing with the issues facing the league — from unsportsmanlike conduct to domestic violence” (Sherman, 2016). Further, many players responded to Goodell’s press conference in which he apologized for the Rice decision. Green Bay Packers’ receiver Myles White tweeted that Goodell was “up here telling lies,” and receiver Sidney Rice put out “Does this mean it’s ok to get it wrong?” (SI Wire, 2014). Participation from the players is extremely important because just as the NFL uses its social capital to influence the public, players have the same ability given their celebrity status.
So, with all of this in mind, what are the implications? It seems there is much at stake when a cultural institution, whose administration is primarily White, exercises social and judicial power over its players, primarily young Black males. I think it is clear there is a desire to change the system on both sides. Many players have expressed their frustration with the league publicly, and with Commissioner Goodell in particular. Additionally, the NFL has taken primary steps to soften punishments on drug abuse, and crack down on domestic violence. I believe that, similarly to the way Ray Rice’s suspension was changed once the full video was released, public opinion is the primary reason for the NFL’s sudden commitment to changing these policies. Now that the spotlight is on, the league must bend under the pressure or risk further alienating its fans and players. While the league’s reasoning might not be ideal or morally correct, there can be no doubt that social media, and more opportunities for players to express dissent, have been instrumental in bringing about the start of major changes for the NFL’s disciplinary process. While players must be held accountable for their actions, the NFL’s ability to make unilateral decisions on matters of public and legal concern has created more problems than it has solved. Perhaps by listening to other voices, such as fans and players, the NFL can foster a disciplinary system that does not have to “get it wrong” and can work towards equal and fair treatment of all its players.
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