“Before they were very tough, and now in some ways, they weren’t tough enough, but this was a much better process and it didn’t call into question the integrity of the commissioner and the league,” said Bob Boland, who heads the sports law program. at Seton Hall University. “The fact that the result is not satisfactory is unfortunate.”
While the new process appears to have worked as intended, leaving Goodell out of the review of the facts and the initial imposition of a penalty, the league’s policies still seem like a work in progress. LeRoy pointed to the opening line of Robinson’s conclusion: “The NFL may be a forward-looking organization, but it’s not necessarily a forward-looking one,” indicating that the NFL is highly controlled, but its approach to discipline has been mostly reactive.
After being criticized for its handling of the case involving former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who in 2014 was initially suspended for two games after punching his fiancee in a hotel elevator, the NFL rewrote its personal conduct policy to base a six-game suspension without pay for first-time offenders of specified violations: criminal assault or battery, any form of domestic violence, and sexual assault that involves physical violence or is committed against a person unable to consent.
In Robinson’s report, she concluded that Watson’s behavior toward the massage therapists was not violent under the NFL’s definition of the term. As a result, she said, she was limited in the discipline she could administer. Robinson wrote that while it may be “entirely appropriate” to discipline players more severely for what the NFL defined as non-violent sexual conduct, she did not believe it was fair to do so given the league’s current standards.
Juan Carlos Arean, program director for the nonprofit Futures Without Violence, said he did not believe the six-game suspension, with no requirement for counseling or intervention, was sufficient to either prevent or correct the behaviors he is accused of Watson. Because violence against women can take many forms, Areán said policies should be written to give leeway to the person issuing discipline based on the specifics of each case.
“We know you don’t have to use physical force and it’s difficult to prove the use of physical force when a sexual assault occurs,” he said. “We also know that other types of assault, emotional abuse and things like that, can have a very negative impact on victims. These are very complex issues, and you can’t just quantify flat out, “well, this is a lot worse than that.”