Football

A Beginner's Guide to Understanding the NFL Personal Conduct Policy

Are you not a football fan, but still wonder why the fuck alleged violent criminals are allowed to earn millions of dollars in this organization? We wrote this for you.

Karisa Maxwell

Karisa Maxwell

Image via Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports

Near the end of the 2014 regular football season—after Minnesota Viking Adrian Peterson beat his 4-year-old son with a tree branch, Ray Rice (then a Baltimore Raven) beat his fiancee in an elevator, and Dallas Cowboy Greg Hardy (then a Carolina Panther) allegedly beat his girlfriend on a couch covered in firearms while she screamed, "Just do it. Kill me"—the National Football League decided it was time to revamp its personal conduct policy.

The "new" NFL Personal Conduct Policy (PCP) was announced on December 10, 2014 during a league meeting in Dallas, TX. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell addressed the media to explain the "comprehensive," "strong," and "tough" new policy that owners had unanimously adopted. The original policy, created in 1997 and later updated in 2007, did not thoroughly outline clear procedures or punishments for off-field misconduct. Instead, it relied on the legal system to determine the severity of the crime and, thus, the severity of the NFL's punishment. This led to the Commissioner issuing inconsistent consequences to players, including both underwhelming and overwhelming fines and suspensions, without regards to the precedent set by prior offenses.

The policy's fundamental shortcomings were made evident after security video footage surfaced of a February 2014 incident involving Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an Atlantic City casino elevator. Rice was arrested and charged with simple assault, then later indicted on charges of third-degree aggravated assault. As a first-time offender, Rice was eligible to enroll into a mandatory rehabilitation program and probationary period, which resulted in all charges being dropped and helped him avoid five years of jail time. Because the case never went to trial, Goodell suspended Rice for only two games, but almost immediately after admitted that he "didn't get it right" and announced that a new, stricter policy will be enforced for all cases involving domestic and sexual assault.

Less than two weeks later, a second, longer version of the video was posted online—this time, Rice could be seen punching his now-wife in the face, knocking her out. It quickly went viral, and the public's reaction was unified in its disgust and dismay. Within hours, the Ravens terminated his contract and Goodell suspended from the league indefinitely.

The 'new' policy has proven to be more of a public relations stunt than a solution or divergent to player misconduct.

Goodell's double suspension of Rice—punishing him twice for the same infraction—violated the NFL and NFL Players Association's Collective Bargaining Agreement, giving the NFLPA no choice but to file an appeal in defense of the running back. In an interview with NPR later that month, Assistant Executive Director of External Affairs George Atallah emphasized that the NFLPA did not agree with or support Rice's actions but that, as a union, it has an obligation to defend the rights of the players.

For its the new Personal Conduct Policy, the NFL added its own version of due process, a conduct committee, and a disciplinary officer. These additions looked to significantly strengthen the previous conduct guidelines and available programs and services for both offenders and victims. Almost a year later, the "new" policy has proven to be more of a public relations stunt than a solution or divergent to player misconduct.

The NFL's new PCP applies to all NFL personnel; owners, coaches, players, team employees, game officials and league office employees—including the commissioner.

The conduct committee represents the owners; it's advised by experts who are under contract with the NFL. These "experts" include five team owners, two female relatives of team owners who also hold positions within the NFL (Charlotte Jones Anderson, daughter Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, is also Executive Vice President and Chief Brand Officer of the Cowboys; and Susan "Dee" Haslam, wife of Jimmy Haslam with whom she co-owns the Cleveland Browns), and two former players with ownership ties, all subject to discipline under the same conduct policy in which they are required to enforce upon their peers and the players whom they have literally invested in.

After Goodell's opening statement at the December press conference, members of the Conduct Committee added their own comments, praising the Commissioner for his leadership and emphasizing their commitment to uphold the ethical standards of the policy.

"We fully support this new policy," Conduct Committee chairman, Michael Bidwell said. "The policy is not just about discipline, it's about education and training."

Before taking ownership of the Arizona franchise, Bidwell served as a federal prosecutor in Phoenix, specializing in violent crimes. Four months prior to his appointment, Bidwell deactivated former Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer after he was arrested for domestic assault charges against his wife and their 18-month-old son. Even though the charges were dropped and Dwyer regained league eligibility, he was not asked to return to the team.

However, not all owners feel it is their or the league's moral responsibility to undermine the policy's procedures regarding athlete reinstatement.

"As a mother of two kids that play football, it is important that character development and character education starts at a young age," said Charlotte Jones Anderson from the podium. "We plan to do just that."

Three months later, the Dallas Cowboys signed Greg Hardy.

Formerly a franchise defensive end for the Carolina Panthers, Hardy was arrested on May 13, 2014 and charged with domestic abuse and communicating threats to his 24-year-old girlfriend, Nicole Holder. According to her testimony, Hardy pushed Holder into furniture, including a futon covered in unlicensed firearms, put his hand around her throat and threatened to kill her. In July, a North Carolina judge convicted Hardy of assault, to which Hardy maintained his innocence and filed an appeal. In the case of ongoing law enforcement investigations under the new PCP, the NFL is to avoid "any interference and may await the outcome of law enforcement proceedings before completing the NFL investigation."

As the investigation continued and the 2014 season began, Greg Hardy dressed and played in the Panthers' season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Starting week two, Hardy was deactivated and placed on paid leave for the remainder of the season while he awaited his February trial, acquiring $6.9 million of his guaranteed $13.1 million salary.

The union has an obligation to defend the players' rights, not their actions.

During that time, Holder made herself completely unavailable to the District Attorney's office leading up to the trial and failed to appear in court to testify. Without the accuser's testimony, the state court did not have "sufficient legal basis upon which to introduce the initial statement she provided to law enforcement," giving the prosecutor no choice but to drop all charges against Hardy. The absence of criminal charges removed Hardy from the NFL's exempt list and, as a free man, Hardy became a free agent.

The Cowboys signed Hardy to a one-year contract worth $11.3 million. A month later, Hardy was suspended for ten games without pay as part of the NFL's disciplinary decision under the support of his team's EVP for violating the league's domestic assault policy. Hardy appealed the decision, with support of the NFLPA, and had his suspension reduced to four games, two shy of the mandatory six game suspension for violations involving assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault.

As with the Ray Rice case, the NFLPA's support for Hardy's appeal was not enabling domestic assault. "The union has an obligation to defend the players' rights, not their actions," George Atallah said in a phone conversation with Broadly.

In an e-mailed statement, Atallah continued, "The role of the NFLPA, like any union, is to protect the players' rights under the collective bargaining agreement. We work hard to negotiate provisions in that agreement which incorporate awareness, education, due process and fair discipline."

While Hardy may have won his appeal and a starting job on "America's Team," his troubles—and the NFL's—are far from removed from the public eye, despite owner Jerry Jones referring to him as a "real leader." On November 6, a day after it was reported that Hardy's charges were expunged from his record, photos of Nicole Holder's bruised body were released to the public via a graphic report by Deadspin.

Now, with photographic evidence that Holder was physically abused by Greg Hardy, the question remains: what will the NFL do about it? While we don't know what the next step is for Goodell and his committee, the Personal Conduct Policy as it stands prevents Hardy from further disciplinary action, especially with the case closed and charges erased. In order to appease the public, who is rightfully heated over the disturbing images, Goodell would have to violate his own policy, causing another uproar with the NFLPA. But is the union's plea for justice as loud as the fans who put money in the league's bank account? Or maybe Holder was right when she told officer Kendrick the night of the assault, "nothing is going to happen to him anyways."

The takeaway from Greg Hardy's case is that Conduct Committee, and the policy which it stands for, does not exist to demand justice, protect victims, or serve as a vigilante—that's what law enforcement and our unreliable justice system is for. The policy exists to protect "public respect" and "support for the NFL" and reprimand those who threaten the NFL's reputation or the "integrity of the game." The NFLPA exists to protect the players from the NFL and the whims of public pressure the league reacts to.

Roger Goodell's endless power cannot prevent rapists from raping or abusers from abusing.

Owners are responsible for building a dominant roster and money-generating franchise. It is not their, or the NFL's, duty to react to society's disapproval and set the moral standards for grown men. Public opinion, often shaped by media outrage, has appeared to play a large part in how and when the policy has been enforced. But no matter how loud the public outcry resonates throughout the message boards, Roger Goodell's endless power cannot prevent rapists from raping or abusers from abusing. It's unrealistic to assume the consequences outlined in the Personal Conduct Policy are going to either influence, discourage, or eliminate an adult man's decision to abuse a woman or child. And in Hardy's case, if a player is fortunate enough to survive the disciplinary process, Goodell can't prevent owners from inviting offenders to join their team and wear a uniform emblazoned with the league's shield in place of scarlet letter.

The New NFL Personal Conduct Policy assures fans and victims that the NFL's moral compass has been calibrated, ready to demand justice and severely prosecute those whose actions jeopardize the reputation of the league and overarching fundamentals of sportsmanship. But the policy is just a piece of paper and the National Football League is a multibillion-dollar business run by owners with financial interest and gain in their players' talents—not their character.