It has become popular, in the wake of an NFL arbitrator giving Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson a ridiculously short six-game suspension despite dozens of sexual misconduct accusations against him, to compare his suspension to other past offenses and find it almost hilariously meager.
Six games for Watson? Vontaze Burfict lost twice as many games for violent on-field hits. DeAndre Hopkins missed exactly that many games for trace amounts of PEDs discovered in his system. Josh Gordon and Darren Waller missed a whole season each for smoking weed. Tom Brady, rather famously, was suspended two fewer games for deflating footballs to make them easier to throw and catch. How can that be? Is the NFL saying that those offenses are less serious than alleged serial sexual harassment?
The NFL isn’t saying that. The thing to remember is that the NFL is never saying anything.
But, of course, the NFL isn’t saying that. The thing to remember is that the NFL is never saying anything.
There was a time when the NFL tried to avoid ever suspending players without an actual conviction in a court of law: It’s why they didn’t suspend quarterback Michael Vick for his dogfighting ring back in 2007 — until he actually pled guilty. But social media changed that. But then the NFL realized, particularly in the wake of the Ray Rice domestic violence scandal of eight years ago, that failing to proactively punish players would create a serious public relations problem. So the league started imposing its own justice.
The problem here is obvious: The NFL is not a criminal justice system; it is a sports league. Thus, its suspensions and punishments, such as they exist, aren’t meant to be “just” or prudent or to set any sort of precedent. They are meant solely to get the league through whatever public relations crisis it is suffering through at the time. People are mad about Burfict’s headhunting? Give him 12 games! Some of the league’s owners are angry that players are using drugs? Ban them for a year! The "Deflategate" scandal is causing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell all sorts of headaches? Give Brady four games! The punishments were essentially fiats by press release, a way to get everybody off the league’s back so they could return to playing games … and minting money, of course. Expecting consistency from such a half-cocked system is a fool’s errand.
This is also one of the main reasons the league hired a judge to be an arbitrator in the first place: League officials hoped retired federal Judge Sue Robinson would take the decision out of their hands. One can argue with Robinson’s ultimate decision in Watson’s case — that suspension sure feels light to me! — but comparing it to other decisions is missing the point entirely. The NFL is attempting to get some distance from these sorts of punishments. It has no stomach for moral arbitration.
But Robinson wasn’t in place for these other past decisions. If she had been, maybe a pattern of punishment would have emerged. Instead, Goodell was the judge — and jury, and executioner. If anything, this case is almost meant to be a transition to a more “impartial” form of punishment, one that isn’t just at the whims of Goodell and his PR team.
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It is worth noting that, when it comes to matters as serious and repulsive as what Watson has been accused of, no suspension can feel adequate. You read the accusations, and you don’t want to look at him at all — you sort of want him gone forever. But that’s not realistic — remember, he hasn’t been charged with a crime, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, and most of the civil suits have now been resolved. Plus, the NFL Players Association has said on the record it would challenge any Watson suspension that ran too long. (That it is going along with this one is thus quite revealing.)
The NFL is trying to set a standard. You might disagree with that standard: I know I sure do. But it is a different standard. The league is also trying not to follow public opinion as much as it used to. On its face, that’s probably a good thing. Public opinion is biased, and it fluctuates. What’s clear is that the NFL has never been very good at policing the bad behavior of its stars. Those silly punishments in the past are proof of it. But that they were so bad doesn’t make this decision worse. This decision is just bad enough on its own.