As professional sports leagues and the athletes they employ garner a higher public profile, there have been increasing demands, from media, lawmakers and the public that they be held to a higher standard of conduct. Athletes have come under greater scrutiny, both on and off the playing surface, with each instance of misbehavior sparking a greater outcry than the last. However, is there a public good served by publicly vilifying athletes for off-the-field or off-the-court indiscretions?
Moreover, do professional sports leagues, like the NFL, have the competence or right to impose punishment on players in response to public outcry, either before the player has had his day in a court of law, or after the courts have decided not to pursue criminal charges?
Two recent cases of note involve former Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Ray Rice and Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.
Rice was arrested earlier this year for allegedly punching his then fiancee unconscious at an Atlantic City casino. A New Jersey grand jury indicted Rice on a charge of aggravated assault, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. The charge was later dropped when Rice agreed to enter court-supervised counseling, and he eventually married his fiancée, the alleged victim in the case. Despite the decision of the courts, the media outcry continued, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell responded by levying a two-game suspension against Rice, just days before a TMZ video of the assault was made public.
Furthermore, as the betting would suggest, the video stoked further outrage, putting Goodell in the uncomfortable position of exacting harsh punishment on a player for non-football related offenses that a court of law deemed not severe enough to bring to trial. Goodell dropped the hammer on Rice, suspending him indefinitely, while the Ravens terminated his contract, likely ending his NFL career.
In Peterson’s case, the 2012 NFL MVP was recently suspended by the Vikings following his indictment by a Texas grand jury on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child. Peterson did not deny the allegations, explaining that he applied the same method of discipline on his son that had been applied to him as a boy. While it is understandable that the public is shocked by such actions, demands for the NFL to act where the courts have not place a burden on the NFL that it is simply not capable of carrying. The NFL is a private enterprise that exists for the primary and legitimate purpose of making money. It lacks the experience, competence, and mandate to exact justice fairly and in accordance with the law.
While fists have been shaken at the NFL’s perceived bumbling of the Rice case, a surprising modicum of outrage has been directed towards the New Jersey court that chose to drop the charges against Rice.
Adrian Peterson has received little to no benefit of doubt prior to getting his day in court.
NFL players have been arrested at a rate of approximately one per week in 2014, and we’ve witnessed no shortage of high-profile college football players who have faced charges that were conveniently made to disappear. It’s a worrisome trend for every member of society, whether he or she is a football fan or not. However, such offenses are best addressed in court—where the accused player both answers to the law and is protected by it. If the courts don’t punish a player for alleged offenses, the commissioner of the NFL cannot do it for them, no matter how vociferous the howls of media outrage become.
Antonio Maurice Daniels
University of Wisconsin-Madison