A lot of times, our professional sports leagues act as a lens through which we can observe the state of our nation. Jackie Robinson’s entrance and success in Major League Baseball was a good indicator of the coming breakdown in segregation. The efforts of players’ unions in creating new collective bargaining agreements alert us to the common man’s struggle for fair treatment by corporate entities. Most recently, Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest, and the backlash against it, reveals a divide in our nation on issues of race.
Nowadays, we are being alerted to the issue of domestic violence that we have in this country. In recent years, several professional athletes have entered the national spotlight after acts of domestic violence. In some cases, we have watched their ultimate demise and fall.
It’s not just individual players who are getting attention. The focus has shifted largely towards the actions of the league administrations, and their handling of the situations that arise.
In the past, the major professional sports leagues have stayed out of the personal affairs of athletes, determined to focus solely on their players’ on-field performance. They then have let the courts determine guilt and dole out punishment. However, this is changing. Despite a long streak of inaction, professional leagues have begun to assume a more proactive role in domestic violence. Player conduct policies have been updated and the league commissioners are handing out more strict punishments for those who violate the policies.
The shift towards more strict policies was sparked after a 2014 incident, in which National Football League runningback Ray Rice punched, and knocked unconscious, his fiancee in an elevator. Following this incident, Rice was initially handed a measly two game suspension. After extensive media coverage and public outrage, the NFL revised its Player Conduct Policy, which covers domestic violence offenses. Now, a first violation results in a six-game suspension, and a second violation results in the permanent banishment of the offending player from the league.
The NFL is not the only league to have assumed a more proactive role. At the beginning of the 2016 season, the MLB handed out its first ever domestic violence-related suspension to Jose Reyes, who was suspended for 52 games.
This active approach towards domestic violence by professional sports leagues is relatively new, and their policies are imperfect. For example, when Minnesota Vikings runningback Adrian Peterson was suspended indefinitely by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the suspension was overturned by a federal court. And after New York Giants kicker Josh Brown was arrested in a domestic violence incident, the NFL suspended him just one game, revealing to many people that the automatic six-game suspension was more of a suggestion than an automatic mechanism.
The imperfect enforcement of these policies has lead some people to think that the leagues ought to let their individual teams handle the disciplinary matters in domestic violence cases. While this may seem like an easy solution, it cannot be left up to individual teams to do this. Teams are not impartial towards the status of their players and want certain players on the field so that they can win games. This would certainly lead to improper disciplinary practices. We can see this sort of indifferent behavior by teams as they continue to draft players with a history of domestic violence, oftentimes at a bargain value. In April, the Kansas City Chiefs sparked some controversy when they drafted Tyreek Hill, who had been charged for punching and choking his pregnant girlfriend. Currently, Hill is a major piece on the Chiefs offense and special teams units. Teams want to win, and thus, they cannot be trusted to handle these issues fairly.
Ultimately, the league administration is an impartial arbitrator, and the handling of these incidents must be up to the leagues. There is no way around that. Although their policies are imperfect, they are evolving to better address the issue. Recently, the NFL administration sent out a memo to inform teams that prospective players with domestic violence charges on their record would not be allowed to participate in the NFL Player Combine. The player conduct policy is evolving and will hopefully improve its ability to address a crucial issue as time passes.
It is crucial that professional leagues and their commissioners keep working to improve these policies. Professional sports is a nationally renowned stage, and many professional athletes are role models to young people. The leagues must work not only to provide justice to victims of domestic violence, but also to send a message to the nation that domestic violence is not something that will be tolerated.
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