The following is a guest contribution from Benjamin Steinberg, an attorney practicing in the state of New York. He received his B.A. in Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania and his J.D. from the NYU School of Law, where he was the Student Bar Association Social Chair and a member of both the Journal of Intellectual Property and Entertainment Law and the Sports Committee of the IP and Entertainment Law Society. He has been published multiple times on the American Bar Association website and is excited to be a contributor to Sports Agent Blog.
One unfortunate theme in the sports world this past year has been the issue of domestic and family violence. Though players’ off-the-field conduct has always been a source of media attention, the highly public nature of this year’s incidents has catapulted domestic violence into the spotlight as a major issue that leagues need to address. Specifically, the incidents involving Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson in the NFL and Slava Voynov in the NHL were highly publicized and scrutinized by sports journalists and news outlets alike. Each situation was handled very differently and, together, have likely shaped how such events will be handled in the future.
What happened: The most lengthy and highly publicized saga of the three, the incident with Ray Rice set the stage for a major overhaul of the NFL’s conduct policy. When a video surfaced of Rice dragging his then-fiancé Janay Palmer, unconscious, out of an Atlantic City elevator, law enforcement officials and the NFL each announced their own investigation. The Baltimore Ravens brass stood behind a seemingly apologetic Rice in the face of the ensuing media storm. Rice was indicted on felony aggravated assault charges and refused a plea deal, but was ultimately accepted into a pretrial intervention program for first time offenders that allowed him to avoid further discipline if he completed a 12 month program and stayed out of other legal trouble. Commissioner Roger Goodell then issued a 2-game suspension, not dissimilar to previous punishments for instances of domestic violence by players. Public outcry at the leniency of this suspension, however, led Goodell to issue a public apology at his handling of the matter, and resulted in the NFL issuing a new domestic violence policy. The policy is applicable to all players and NFL personnel and includes a mandatory minimum 6-game suspension without pay for first time offenders and a lifetime ban for repeat offenders. This policy, as a personal conduct policy that falls outside of the CBA, was issued by the league unilaterally, not in conjunction with the NFLPA.
The repercussions of Rice’s actions might have been limited to the foregoing had a second video from inside the elevator not surfaced via TMZ. Upon seeing the video of Rice punching Ms. Palmer, the Baltimore Ravens terminated its contract with Rice and the NFL suspended him indefinitely. The NFL justified this punishment to the NFLPA by stating that Rice had not been truthful with Goodell in his recounting of the incident. After a two day suspension appeal hearing, however, a neutral arbitrator overturned the indefinite suspension, stating that Rice did not lie to the commissioner and as such the increased suspension was excessive and without cause.
Moving forward: Rice is a free agent and has the ability to sign with any team in the league, but he’s been treated like a pariah by NFL GM’s even after his indefinite suspension was overturned. What the future will bring for his career remains uncertain, however, perhaps he will be able to find one team, in a league that gave second chances to the likes of Plaxico Burress and Michael Vick, to give him a shot. The NFL’s shoddy handling of the incident will surely leave a big stain on the legacy of Roger Goodell as well. The only bright spot is the NFL’s new domestic violence policy (though that too is not without its critics), which hopefully will serve to protect victims of violence, and the league’s integrity, moving forward. An independent investigation of how the league handled the Rice Ray incident, led by former FBI chief Robert Mueller, is ongoing, though exactly what the consequences of any findings will be remains uncertain.
What happened: Adrian Peterson’s own off-the-field problems also began in the off season but didn’t garner much media attention until near the beginning of the season, when the NFL was instituting its new domestic violence policy and Peterson was testifying before a grand jury in Texas. Peterson was eventually indicted for reckless or negligent injury to a child for striking one of his sons repeatedly with a switch. The injuries were originally discovered by a doctor during a routine visit, who said the bruises and lacerations were consistent with child abuse. Peterson accepted responsibility for his actions and claimed that he was merely trying to discipline his son in the same manner in which he had been disciplined as a child. After being temporarily deactivated and then reinstated by the Vikings, the organization placed him on the exempt/commissioners permission list, preventing him from taking place in any team activities. Subsequently, Peterson struck a deal with Texas prosecutors by pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of reckless assault. His punishment includes two years of deferred adjudication (a form of probation), a fine, counseling and community service. After failing to show up at his own hearing with Commissioner Goodell, the league announced that Peterson was being suspended and would not be eligible for reinstatement until after April 15, 2015. After an arbitrator upheld the punishment, the NFLPA filed suit against the NFL on behalf of Peterson challenging the suspension. Some of the legal issues include (1) whether the arbitrator that decided Peterson’s case was biased, (2) whether league executives ever promised Peterson a shorter suspension, and (3) whether the league violated the CBA by disciplining Peterson under the NFL’s new conduct policy issued in the wake of the Ray Rice scandal instead of the old policy.
Moving forward: As of today, Adrian Peterson is still a member of the Minnesota Vikings organization, though whether he will be in a purple and gold uniform in 2015 is still up in the air. His suspension by the league is scheduled to be revisited in the spring, at which point in time Peterson’s future in the NFL will be determined, but even if he is reinstated the Vikings may decide to part ways with him. It is also possible, however, that the NFLPA’s suit may change all this. The suit was brought in the District Court in Minnesota, a venue that the NLFPA often turns to for resolving labor issues with the league. The takeaway from Peterson’s case is that it appears the NFL is determined to treat instances of child abuse in the same manner as domestic violence against a partner under the new conduct policy.
What happened: On October 20th, 2014, Voynov was arrested on allegations of spousal abuse at a Los Angeles hospital after neighbors reported hearing screaming and crying. The same day, perhaps in an effort to set the tone of the incident before the news broke, the NHL suspended Voynov indefinitely with pay and stated that it would wait to review and reevaluate his situation until after legal proceedings had taken place. Under the current CBA, Voynov was also automatically entered into the leagues substance abuse and behavioral health program (the CBA does not have a stand alone domestic violence policy). Voynov’s team, the Los Angeles Kings, issued a statement supporting the league’s actions, but issued no further discipline of their own. On top of that, the Kings were disciplined by the league after allowing Voynov to skate at a team practice in violation of his suspension, with the NHL levying a $100,000 fine against them. Voynov was arraigned in December and the court set a March date for trial.
Moving forward: Voynov’s case is hard to evaluate at the current moment because his future status with the NHL and the Kings will likely remain up in the air until his legal proceedings have run their course. Whether any sort of deal will be struck before his trial date is uncertain, but any further action before his pretrial hearing date at the end of January seems unlikely. Voynov remains suspended with pay for now. As for the NHL, some have praised the swift actions it took in suspending Voynov while others have criticized the NHL’s lack of a specific domestic violence policy to address instances like the present.
Concluding thoughts: It is very important for athletes to recognize that, in today’s world of iPhones, the Twitterverse and the 24-hour news cycle, they are constantly being scrutinized. As public figures and role models, they have a responsibility to act in a manner that is not merely lawful, but also protects their own brand and that of the teams they play for and the leagues they play in. The leagues themselves have a responsibility to maintain the integrity of the league by implementing comprehensive conduct policies and doling out fair punishment when necessary. Each of the Big 4 sports leagues has its own CBA negotiated with its respective players union and has conduct policies in place to deal with instances of player misconduct both on and off the field (or court or ice, as it may be). Just as major issues like performance enhancing drugs and concussions have led leagues to reevaluate their policies and address new programs and initiatives in CBA negotiations, so too will the issue of domestic violence need to be (further) addressed going forward. Will the NFLs policy prove to be enough to stem the rising tide of these instances in the league? Will the NHL make any change to its conduct policy to address these matters specifically? Will the MLB or NBA take preemptive action to improve their own policies? The court of public opinion will just have to wait and see.