Recreation and Sport Studies

Studying, Experiencing and Facilitating Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport through Wellness and Physical Activity

Critical Policy Review: NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy

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Ever since Roger Goodell became the commissioner of the National Football League (NFL) in 2006, there has been a major emphasis on the behaviour of both players and personnel off the field. In the years leading up to Goodell’s appointment as the commissioner, there had been a growing issue of players, coaches, executives, and others tarnishing the reputation of the league through negligent, dangerous, and potentially illegal off the field incidents. In response to this seemingly negative culture shift developing within the league, a personal conduct policy was introduced in 2007 to ensure that the league was viewed positively in the public eye and seen as a viable source of entertainment for all ages. Negative off the field conduct leads to certain people tuning out and becoming disinterested in the product because it can be difficult to support and cheer for people who do not share the same positive societal values as others. Throughout Goodell’s regime, the policy has been updated and tweaked numerous times to mesh with the changing scope of the league – the most recent iteration was developed in 2016 and this the one in which I will be analyzing.
The policy deals with a plethora of sensitive topics which must be carefully addressed within the guidelines. I have chosen to discuss this policy because I am an avid fan of the NFL and really enjoy following the intricacies of the league. Many stories involving the league throughout each calendar year discuss the policy and its effect on player conduct so it is interesting for me to delve in further, read and analyze the policy, and also see what other influential people think of it. In this paper, I will briefly summarize the NFL’s most recently updated Personal Conduct Policy, analyze varying opinions on the policy and then add my own thoughts and views on the policy.
When looking at the Personal Conduct Policy which was commissioned in 2016, we must first look at what the policy is intending to do and what its main mandate is. It is clearly stated in the first paragraph that “it is a privilege to be in the National Football League (and) everyone who is part of the league must refrain from “conduct detrimental to the integrity and public confidence in” the NFL” (National Football League, 2016). The word “everyone” is bolded and underlined to emphasize who the policy is being addressed to. Consequently, it is extremely important to note which parties in particular he NFL is addressing in the policy as that will help make more sense of the reasoning and tone of the guidelines. The policy states that it “includes owners, coaches, players, other team employees, game officials, and employees of the league office, NFL Films, NFL Network, or any other NFL business” (National Football League, 2016). This is sensible because everyone associated with the league represents the entire entity and poor behaviour from any individuals associated with the league can negatively impact the public image. The NFL is also covering its bases in including all possible parties to ensure that there are no liability issues if someone conducts themselves poorly.
The body of the policy is divided into two major sections: “Expectations and Standards of Conduct” and “What Happens When a Violation of this Policy is Suspected?” (National Football League, 2016). In the Expectations and Standards of Conduct section, it is specified what type of actions lead to discipline from the league. Furthermore, it is stated that “it is not simply enough to avoid being found guilty of a crime (and that) we are all held to a higher standard and must conduct ourselves in a way that is responsible, promotes the value of the NFL, and is lawful” (National Football League, 2016). In each area of this document, we are mindful of the fact that the NFL is mostly concerned about their public image so anything that is done to foil that must be subject for discipline. It is an important distinction that players and league personnel do not necessarily have to be convicted of a crime to be subject of discipline from the league – this means that the league is very serious about their efforts to minimize poor behaviour off the field but it also leads to a significant amount of grey area in their disciplinary decisions. The league provides a list of 14 separate actions that may lead to discipline from the league. The NFL is very thorough and leaves all bases covered in order to discipline anyone associated with the league who they feel is breaching appropriate conduct. They state that “even if the conduct does not result in a criminal conviction, players found to have engaged in any of the following conduct will be subject to discipline” (National Football League, 2016). They also make a point that “prohibited conduct includes but is not limited to” (National Football League, 2016) these 14 actions which suggests that several other actions can be perceived as breaking the code of conduct. Some of the 14 actions are broad in nature and can include a variety of negligent activity such as “assault and/or battery, including sexual assault or other sex offenses, disorderly conduct, conduct that poses a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person, etc.” (National Football League, 2016). Since a player does not have to be convicted of a crime to be disciplined, the league has full discretion in initiating discipline towards a player if they feel they have violated the expectations and standards that are laid out for them in the policy.
The What Happens When a Violation of This Policy is Suspected section is extended and covers several areas in reaction to the expectations and standards of conduct that were stated previously. The gist of this section is to outline what occurs to league personnel when league rules are violated. The league mentions various steps that may occur if violations of rules are signalled by the league. Personally, I find this section slightly convoluted and it does not necessarily outline in order what may occur once a violation happens. They just jumble a number of further actions that the league may take to address the situation and some of them are very vague. The subsets in this section include: “Evaluation Counseling, and Services, Investigations, Leave with Pay, Discipline, Reporting, and Conduct Committee” (National Football League, 2016). As evidenced by this title, the league was all over the place and felt the need to mention all areas of discipline following a breach of conduct. In a nutshell, when a player or league personnel member breaches desired conduct, they are subject to many actions that the league can impose on them. By outlining them in their entirety in this section, individuals who are said to have committed a violation have very little wiggle room in their defense. While this section does not deliberately outline the chronological process following a conviction by the league, it covers several areas and ensures that players and league personnel are aware of what may occur if they violate the desired expectations and standards of conduct.
Before delving into my personal analysis, I feel as though it is beneficial to briefly touch on varying opinions towards the policy from the public and within the league itself. On the whole, public opinion on the policy is fairly mixed although you could probably find a slightly larger group that takes issue with it than those who support it wholeheartedly. One of the major points of contention with the policy is that it is somewhat vague in certain areas and that the extrapolation of discipline can be extremely inconsistent as a result. For instance, Mel Robbins is of the opinion that players and others associated with the league do not know what to expect from the league if they violate one of the points laid out by the league. Moreover, Brooks states that the policy “is ambiguous, optional, case-by-case, complicated and at the discretion of the NFL” (Robbins, 2014). A major sentiment is that since a lot of the discipline is at the discretion of the NFL, it can lead to a lot of grey area when it comes to deciding on proper punishment for individuals. Since each potential case can be different, it is difficult to have an overarching set of rules in place to discipline players and this can lead to a lack of consistency when it comes to punishment. Another criticism towards the policy is the sentiment that the league put together this document mainly to ease the criticism the league was facing in regards to several players acting out and tarnishing the reputation of the entity and that it fails to take steps to find ways to discipline players in a more consistent manner. Before implementation of the newest iteration of the policy, the league had faced heavy criticism for mishandling certain situations involving domestic violence in particular and applying inconsistent discipline towards players. As a result, some people hold the opinion that “pressure led the NFL to hastily implement a player conduct policy specifically aimed at addressing crimes against women (and that) the NFL admittedly used this new policy as a public relations maneuver” (Meyer, 2015, p. 1). Many people think that the league was simply trying to save face after botching the execution of disciplinary measures in previous cases and this new policy was an act in showing the public that they were attempting to make an effort in resolving the increasingly negative situation.
In my view, while I feel as though it is important in theory to have a set of standards for players and league personnel to abide by, the execution is not precise and it leads to a lot of confusion. When reading and analyzing the policy itself, I was impressed with the conciseness of the introduction and the section regarding the expectations and standards of conduct. I felt as though the league did a fine job encapsulating the purpose for the policy and what must occur to violate the rules and expectations that are put in place by the league. However, once the expectations and standards are drawn out, I find that the policy gets messy and ambiguous. It is difficult to interpret the section regarding what happens following a violation of the policy and can lead to a lot of confusion amongst those trying to interpret the document. While it would be slightly more difficult to implement, I think it would be in the league’s favour to have more cut and dry violations with specific disciplinary actions attached to certain violations. This would lead to a more consistent disciplinary process and those associated with the league would be aware of the potential consequences tied to their actions.
Despite my criticism towards the execution of the policy, I do agree that a policy of this nature must be mandated not only in the NFL, but in every league. In an era where everything is highlighted on social media and other sources, players and league personnel must be more careful than ever when it comes to behaviour off the field. The standards are higher in this day and age and leagues must have rules in place for players and personnel that perform actions which can stain the reputation of the league. For me personally, I grew up idolizing athletes and emulating them in everyday life. From my experience, I know how special it is to have a relationship with an athlete and to follow them as you grow up. Athletes need to be cognizant of the fact that they are role models for the youth and a policy such as this can go a long way towards ensuring that players act in a way that is appropriate and cordial. One of the main subjects we touched on in the course was the idea that globalization has been causing the opportunity for teams and leagues to grow their fan bases in ways that they could have never imagined decades ago. Moreover, “at one time sports managers relied almost exclusively on fans in their local market to generate a lifetime commitment in order to earn team revenues (but) with new technologies…it is increasingly feasible to market to fans world-wide” (Foster & Hyatt, 2008, p. 266). This widen scope puts much more pressure on leagues such as the NFL to ensure that their players and personnel are acting accordingly and ensuring that the league is viewed in a positive light. With increasing international exposure, young children all over the world have the opportunity to look up to NFL players which means that these players must be more careful than ever in maintaining a strong reputation. A personal conduct policy can help in this sense but the execution must be crisper so that players can be aware of specific potential discipline.
As an ardent fan of the NFL, I feel as though the ambiguity of the policy takes away from the on-field product in some respect. Due to various off the field incidents occurring and subsequent suspensions being handed out, there is constant discussion regarding how the NFL should handle themselves in response to the incidents that occur away from the game. In my opinion, the lack of clarity in the policy contributes to a lot of wasted discussion on suspensions and discipline rather than focus on the game itself. Since the policy leaves a lot of wiggle room for the league and does not specifically clarify suspension lengths, it makes it difficult for the league to levy appropriate and consistent suspension lengths when players break the regulations set forth. The lack of ambiguity certainly effects the NFL in several ways and leads to negative press and attention. It is important to recognize the fact that professional sports have become a business in a sense and that a large amount of money is in play when it comes to all elements of a league like the NFL. Moreover, professional sports becoming more business-driven in the past few decades are “a matter of recognizing that the distinctive qualities sport and its participants possessed, notably its popular culture appeal and unrivalled aura of authenticity, were of potential value in the increasingly competitive process of capital accumulation in a fully-fledged consumer society” (Smart, 2007, p. 114). As professional sports have become more consumer driven, sponsors must be cognizant of the negative attention that is brought upon the league when a large majority of the talk is focused on the off-field behaviour of players. It takes away from the heightened sense of authenticity and cultural appeal that the drove a league like the NFL to be consumer driven in the first place. If issues continue to persist through the lack of ambiguity of the policy, league sponsors may become disinterested in the direction the league is heading and choose to decide to spend their money elsewhere.
Overall, I feel as though the policy is a double-edged sword for the NFL. While I think a policy such as the Personal Conduct Policy is absolutely necessary, the execution is subpar and leaves for too much room for interpretation. While players and personnel are aware of the fact that they must compose themselves properly off the field, it would be helpful for them to know what exactly their consequences are based on their actions. I believe that it is in the best interests of the NFL to restructure the policy to make it more comprehensible and explicit. This would lead to a more defined set of rules and less discussion about the length of suspensions and the substantiality of fines levied. If there was a fixed doctrine in place, players and personnel would be punished accordingly and most of the attention could be shifted towards the on-field product. This policy matters because the league must regulate the actions of those associated with the league and ensure that their public image is not tarnished. A policy must be in place to keep individuals in line and give them incentive to behave in a manner that represents the league positively. On the other hand, critical analysis of the policy is important as well because improvements certainly must be made. If people share their concerns about the weaknesses of the policy, changes can be made and the league can be better for it. I hope that the league can continue to tweak the policy and end up with a set of regulations which are clear and lead to fair and non-ambiguous punishment.

References
Foster, W. M., & Hyatt, C. G. (2008). Inventing team tradition: a conceptual model for strategic development of fan nations. European Sport Management Quarterly, 8(3), 265-287.
Meyer, J. (2015). Unnecessary toughness: Throwing the flag on the NFL’s new personal conduct policy. Illinois Business Law Journal, 1-1.
National Football League: Personal Conduct Policy. (2016). Retrieved from https://nflpaweb.blob.core.windows.net/media/Default/PDFs/Active%20Players/PersonalConductPolicyLPP.pdf
Robbins, M. (2014, December 13). NFL’s personal conduct policy fail. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/11/opinion/robbins-nfl-domestic-violence-rules/index.html
Smart, B. (2007). Not playing around: global capitalism, modern sport and consumer culture. Global Networks, 7(2), 113-134.

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