The story that dominated the NFL news cycle this week was the light punishment Ray Rice received for beating the woman who is now his wife. Everyone on the internet—well, everyone not named Stephen A. Smith—said the same thing: "Two measly games? That's all the Baltimore Ravens running back gets for domestic violence? When Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon is missing the entire season for testing positive for weed? Does this mean that commissioner Roger Goodell thinks hitting a woman until she's unconscious is more excusable somehow than using drugs?" The outrage was justified, but the NFL should have anticipated it. When you make yourself responsible for policing players' off-field behavior, as Goodell has, it's only natural that people will second-guess your decisions. Is assault a worse offense than a DUI? Is smoking marijuana on par with using steroids? Do you penalize players when they're accused of something awful—which is what happened when Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended in 2010 after a woman said he sexually assaulted her—or do you wait for a conviction? Do you weigh each crime and punishment individually, as Goodell seems to have done in the case of Rice, or do you have guidelines that you follow to the letter as the NFL does with its substance abuse policies?
A simple, morally clear way to avoid these questions is to just end Goodell's policing of players. Announce that no one is going to be suspended or fined by the league for any off-field behavior and let the teams take charge of discipline. Say, "It's not our business what athletes put in their bodies or do when they're off the clock. We just want to make sure the games are entertaining for the fans and safe for the players. We trust that individual franchises will be able to deal with any serious problems like addiction or anger management issues, but other than that? It's not our business."
Such a statement would require the league admitting to itself that it's not a cornerstone of American democracy but just an unusually successful entertainment business. Football is more violent than Broadway musicals, more unpredictable than action movies, and more exciting than a game of solitaire, but ultimately watching it is just another way to pass the time. On the face of it, there's no reason that NFL players should be drug tested more often than the Rolling Stones, no reason to care whether the guys under the pads and helmets are clean-living young men who stay out of trouble. If you're cynical about these sorts of things, you can imagine that the league's disciplinary policies are designed to reassure the viewing public that there are some morally upright grownups making sure that there are rules to this here bloodsport:
"OK, so players are pumped full of painkillers so they can participate in this game, but don't worry: We're making sure they don't use steroids!"
"Yes, we are in the business of giving millions of dollars to young men who may not have a whole lot of self-control, but it's cool: We punish them if we find out they smoke drugs!"
It's worth noting that while Rice's domestic violence case has gotten a lot of headlines, in practice most suspensions are handed down for substance abuse. Many times this means players are punished for using marijuana, a drug that's fully legal in two states and used medicinally in a lot more; in other cases it's Adderall, a drug used by thousands of college students and others who want to focus; occasionally players probably test positive for "hard" drugs like cocaine or heroin. After each suspension, the athlete issues a statement saying that they "take full responsibility" or whatever, a few media members may write self-righteous columns, and the team, the league, and the fans move on. Who's helped by keeping stars like Gordon or the Indianapolis Colts' Robert Mathis off the field? Who's harmed by athletes indulging in these substances? Why not just let individual teams decide when a player's personal life is causing problems and let coaches and GMs bench or release a player as the situation warrants?
Surely we're not so naive that we think of professional football players as role models—and in any case, the punishments are so inconsistent with the crimes that it's not clear what message is being sent by the NFL. A few months ago, when Arizona Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington pleaded guilty to assaulting the mother of his child, people thought he would be punished by the league, and he was: He got suspended for the entire 2014 season... because he smoked marijuana.
Harry Cheadle is glad he's never had a job where he got drug tested. Follow him on Twitter.