Predicting the success of Heisman trophy winners in the NFL is far from an exact science. These college all-stars enter the league with dreams of franchise greatness, super bowl trophies, and headlines featuring their names. Johnny Football managed to make headlines, TMZ headlines, as the 2012 Heisman trophy winner traded in his collegiate accolades for drunken videos on social media, criminal charges, and an uncertain future in the NFL. Unfortunately, many spectators saw this coming as Johnny Football’s off-field circus showed early signs of derailing his otherwise promising career as an NFL quarterback. Two years ago the Heisman winner waited anxiously as the commissioner prepared to call his name rewarding him with a much-anticipated career in the NFL. Now he awaits a more somber call as the Commissioner prepares his punishment.
Each year NFL franchises wade through pre-draft rankings, free agency reports, and potential trade offers sorting and labeling players in hopes of finding someone that can fill their individual team needs. Somewhere in between being labeled as a future franchise quarterback and a NFL wash out, a player’s profile can be quickly deemed as untouchable, despite the quantitative statistics. The media often uses the label, “Character Concerns” to categorize players that have at some point demonstrated off-field conduct issues. The NFL has provided a clear definition and parameters for identifying this behavior in the revised 2014 version of their Personal Conduct Policy. The prohibited behavior is defined as, “Conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League.” This includes: criminal activity of any kind, violent or threatening behavior, and conduct that undermines the integrity and reputation of the NFL.” While these revisions are a definitive improvement from it’s 2007 predecessor, the standards set by Commissioner Goodell struggle with on going enforcement issues. The major point of concern is that the commissioner is given unilateral authority over the distribution of punishment for individuals found guilty of personal conduct violations. This structural flaw has perpetuated inconsistent management of players with character concerns and has weakened the legitimacy of the NFL’s stance on off-field misconduct. My analysis will observe recent cases in which this structural flaw has led to the mismanagement of athletes with character concerns in order to demonstrate the need for further reform.
2016 has not been a very good year for Johnny Manziel. After fighting a losing battle for a starting spot as the Cleveland Brown’s quarterback, the franchise has announced that they plan to release him when the new league year begins March 9. This removal comes after a number of on and off-field antics that include trips to rehab, DUI’s, and unscheduled absences throughout the season. Just when things couldn’t get worse, on February 5th the Dallas Police department announced that it had launched a criminal investigation of Manziel after receiving a complaint of domestic violence form his ex girlfriend. The NFL has since followed up with an investigation of their own to determine Manziel’s future as he navigates through the criminal proceedings and markets himself to teams in need of a quarterback for next season. This investigation is increasingly significant, as the NFL now has an opportunity to exercise the investigative and disciplinary elements of its personal conduct policy and address the criticism it has received since its enactment in 2014.
As mentioned earlier, the primary concern with the NFL’s personal conduct policy is the overwhelming authority given to the commissioner when it comes to dealing out punishment. In light of this structural concern there are many aspects of the new policy that are worth noting. Over the past two years the NFL has been increasingly vigilant in the battle against domestic abuse. The league has very intentionally taken time to increase awareness of domestic abuse, provide counseling resources, and allocate additional funds to educational efforts for both players and fans. This effort is embodied in the NFL’s personal conduct policy as it establishes a “baseline six week suspension without pay”, for any “violations involving assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault.” In light of the mishandling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse case, the NFL was praised for the inclusion of this mandatory punishment as they sought to set a new standard moving forward. This stipulation is the only specified punishment listed in the policy; meanwhile, all other violations are essentially left to the discretion of the Commissioner. Early on this ambiguity seemed negligible as the focus was so evidently fixed on the powerful stance against domestic violence, but the unilateral authority would prove to be a structural flaw that has compromised the significance of the 2014 policy as a whole.
Despite the on going media coverage, Manziel’s case is not the first opportunity for the NFL to properly enforce its new policy, if anything his case presents an opportunity for redemption. While the NFL was developing the new policy, Defensive End, Greg Hardy was charged, and convicted of domestic violence in July of 2014. After an appeal, a dismissed trial due to an absent accuser, and a civil settlement between Hardy and his ex-girlfriend, Hardy was able to turn his focus back to the NFL. During his legal proceedings Hardy’s contract with the Panther’s had expired and he managed to land a controversial new contract with the Dallas Cowboys. The NFL began their independent two-month investigation in February of 2015, following the newly enacted investigative process of the Personal Conduct Policy. Now a contracted member of the Dallas Cowboys, Greg Hardy was notified that the NFL had found sufficient credible evidence that Hardy engaged in conduct that violated NFL policy standards. Hardy received a ten game suspension missing a majority of the 2015 season, and the NFL’s new policy seemed to gain a valuable boost in legitimacy as it established a necessary precedent for harsh sentencing for these intolerable acts. The celebration of this new policy was short-lived as Hardy’s suspension was cut from ten games to four. This decision was brought forth by Goodell’s arbitrator Harold Henderson who believed that while, “The commissioner acted within his authority and properly exercised his discretion…10 games is simply too much.” This was a fatal blow to the executive structure of the 2014 policy and ultimately brought into question the extent to which the NFL was serious about off field misconduct. “Henderson’s backtracking on this one makes it clear the league prefers the appearance of looking tough on crime to actually being tough on crime.”
The guidelines laid out in the Personal Conduct Policy had tremendous potential to re-characterize NFL Lawmaking as a legitimate entity that was tough on crime and serious about issues like domestic violence. Instead it further enforces the notion that league officials and franchise owners are more concerned with top line revenue, saving face, and keeping players on the field. One of the most notable problems within the policy is that it’s ambiguous, case-by-case nature leaves too much at the discretion of the Commissioner’s authority. Furthermore, the results of the Greg Hardy investigation revealed that the only exceedingly clear stipulation, that mandatory minimum six-week suspension, is subject to be overlooked and overwritten. Outlined in a convenient flow chart issued by the NFL, the detailed procedure is loaded with vague language expressing actions that the NFL “may” take, with little to no guarantee that any action will be carried out at all. This all flows down to the final statement of disciplinary action titled, the “Final Decision”. After the investigation and multi-step adjudicating process, “The commissioner or his designee reviews the panel’s recommendations and makes a final decision on disciplinary measures.” The final step is a stand-alone decision that could theoretically negate the entire process prior to it. The final step places unilateral authority into the hands of the commissioner who is simultaneously trying to convince the public to trust the process. The top-heavy processes is appropriately analogous to the quarterback position during an offensive drive. In the event that the commissioner unjustly exercises his discretion and fumbles the snap the entire structure comes falling down on top of him. It’s all about clarity. Yes, off field misconduct and domestic abuse is a complicated issue but the NFL is in desperate need of clear operating standards that extend beyond unitary discretion to handle these complex cases.
The question now circles back to Johnny Manziel. After two years of back and forth media coverage alternating between his time on the bench and in Vegas night clubs, the newly released quarterback is now under investigation. Manziel’s case also points to something greater as it reminds us of the importance of the NFL’s effective management of character concerns. After being released by the Brown’s and charged with domestic assault Manziel’s father released a statement saying. “ I truly believe if they [The NFL] can’t get him help, he won’t live to see his 24th birthday”. The nature of these personal conduct cases goes far beyond the public image of the NFL, it is about the well being of players and their families. The NFL has another opportunity to handle an ongoing personal conduct issue in Johnny Manziel. In the same way that Ray Rice was a catalyst for the 2014 policy reforms and established a precedent for the management of player conduct issues, Johnny Football may be next.