The National Football League requires all persons associated with the NFL to follow a personal conduct policy (relevant excerpt and link to pdf of the complete policy below). Personal conduct policies are not unusual, but the NFL policy seemingly subjects people to a kind of double jeopardy. For example, Brandon Marshall of the Denver Broncos, previously subject to league discipline for multiple encounters with law enforcement, is said to be facing further discipline by the league, possibly up to an eight-game suspension (or half of the regular NFL season). His most recent crime? Well, nothing, actually. He and his fiancée were both arrested for disorderly conduct after a public argument that got physical. Charges against both were swiftly dismissed within hours. Nothing further will come from that incident as far as the law is concerned. The trouble for Marshall, however, is that according to the NFL Personal Conduct Policy, “It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime.”
Persons associated with the NFL are held to a higher standard. That in itself does not always seem problematic, and it is not unique to the NFL. But might the standard be too high? As it is, someone like Marshall is “guilty when accused” as far as the NFL is concerned. Such a policy seems to conflict with any normal understanding of justice. Marshall is not only required to defend himself in front of the law, but then again in front of the NFL commissioner.
Some persons, attorneys included, are beginning to take note. Attorney David Cornwell is raising some challenges to the NFL's right to discipline players (see the second link below). He refers to the NFL’s disciplinary policies as “draconian and unfair,” and argues that “The notion that a person who has a bad event is a reflection on all of us is misplaced.” He wants the NFL to be fair and also to focus on “making sure that the fan understands that the vast majority of NFL players are great community citizens.”
There are at least two relevant concerns here. First, is the policy fair? Granting that the NFL may permissibly hold persons associated with it to a higher standard, is the standard unjustifiably high? Second, even if the policy is just, is it best for the NFL? An incident like Marshall’s most recent would hardly catch much attention given how swiftly it was dropped as an issue by law enforcement. The NFL’s policy, however, gives the incident legs and focuses negative attention onto the NFL. The policy may do more harm than good to the NFL. Perhaps the NFL ought to concern itself more with offense and defense on the field, and let the legal system deal with legal offenses.
Relevant excerpt from the NFL Personal Conduct Policy: “All persons associated with the NFL are required to avoid ‘conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League.’…While criminal activity is clearly outside the scope of permissible conduct, and persons who engage in criminal activity will be subject to discipline, the standard of conduct for persons employed in the NFL is considerably higher. It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime. Instead, as an employee of the NFL or a member club, you are held to a higher standard and expected to conduct yourself in a way that is responsible, promotes the values upon which the League is based, and is lawful. Persons who fail to live up to this standard of conduct are guilty of conduct detrimental and subject to discipline, even where the conduct itself does not result in conviction of a crime.”
The NFL Personal Conduct Policy (pdf): http://www.nflplayers.com/images/fck/NFL%20Personal%20Conduct%20Policy%202008.pdf
Cornwell challenging NFL's policy: http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/news/story?id=3962086