When Ray Rice received a two-game suspension from the NFL last week for a fight in which he knocked his wife unconscious, many were quick to compare it to harsher penalties handed down for other players' lesser infractions.
In 2008, New York Giant Plaxico Burress was suspended for twice as long for accidentally shooting himself in his leg. Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns now faces a season-long exile for marijuana use.
The disparity again thrust the NFL's disciplinary system into the spotlight. For some, the system is opaque and arbitrary, with a single individual — league commissioner Roger Goodell — having wide latitude in determining punishment.
"Commissioner Goodell has the broadest powers of any of the four professional league commissioners," wrote lawyer Adriano Pacifici in an article published in May in the Berkeley Journal of Entertainment and Sports Law. "The NFL system is clearly the worst system of the four. It provides no independent review and grants Commissioner Goodell near unlimited power."
That was on display last week, when Rice's punishment was announced. For Margaret E. Johnson, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, "there's just too much discretion given to the commissioner."
She would advocate a clearer policy, particularly for cases involving domestic violence, with specific penalties.
Mandatory punishments leave no "wiggle room" for extenuating circumstances, said Pacifici, an associate at a New Orleans law firm. Instead, he called for reforming the league's appeals process. Unlike in other sports leagues, he said, players in the NFL who appeal their punishments make their case to the same official who initially leveled them — the commissioner, or his "designee."
"It's a little bizarre," Pacifici said in an interview. "What judge in real life would make a decision … and then later say, 'Oh, maybe I was really wrong the first time'?"
NFL officials say some players have had their suspensions lessened or vacated on review. They also say it's hard to compare player penalties across the board.
"Every case is different," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said.
McCarthy said that there isn't just one NFL discipline policy — there are different ones depending on whether the infraction is game-related, or a violation of the league's code of conduct or its substance abuse rules. Violations of the latter, for example, carry varying penalties depending on whether the player is a first-time or repeat offender, he said.
Rice was penalized under the personal-conduct policy, and in addition to the two-game suspension will lose $529,000 in wages. The policy doesn't outline specific penalties, and Goodell arrived at Rice's punishment after meeting with the player, his wife and others.
"This personal-conduct policy is something we take very seriously," McCarthy said, "and spent a lot of time crafting in conjunction with player input."