To say I’m a football fan is putting it mildly. You will find my family cheering loudly at the TV during Falcons games. (How ‘bout that overtime win over the Saints?!) And while it’s not often I get to blog about football, the awful Ray Rice situation holds some lessons for ethics and compliance professionals.
I’m sure you know the sordid details of the story by now. TMZ released an appalling video of Rice punching his then-fiancé (now wife) in an Atlantic City hotel elevator in February 2014. Earlier a video surfaced of him dragging her, unconscious, from the elevator and while that was disturbing to say the least, it wasn’t until the release of the second video that we could see what actually happened inside the elevator.
This kind of conduct should be explicitly forbidden in any enterprise. Most companies, schools, organizations and yes, even the NFL, have a Code of Conduct that governs the behavior of its employees. In fact, the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy states “All persons associated with the NFL are required to avoid conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League.” This requirement applies to players, coaches, other team employees, owners, game officials and all others who are employed in the National Football League.
Consequences of Violating the Code
So that’s the policy, let’s talk about the consequences for violating it. Any policy should clearly the state the disciplinary actions that could result from a violation, as well as the levels of punishment that escalate depending on the severity of the infraction, and that should be included in compliance training. It is best practice for ethics and compliance programs to define policies for employees and then educate them with compliance training, which makes me wonder if the NFL trains its employees on this policy. And I mean train, not just hand out a document for them to sign. People who fail to live up to the NFL’s standard of conduct are guilty of conduct detrimental and subject to discipline, even where the “conduct itself does not result in conviction of a crime.” The first bullet point I found under “Discipline may be imposed in any of the following circumstances” reads “Criminal offenses including, but not limited to, those involving: the use or threat of violence; domestic violence and other forms of partner abuse; theft and other property crimes; sex offenses; obstruction or resisting arrest; disorderly conduct; fraud; racketeering; and money laundering.”
So it is clear that Ray Rice violated the policy. But other players have violated it as well, for seemingly less horrifying conduct, and received harsher penalties. When the first video surfaced, Rice was given a 2-game suspension, which was seen as outrageous by many, including me. Compare that to Carolina Panthers football player who received a four-game suspension – double – for testing positive for a banned substance last May. To recap: beat a human unconscious, get 2 games. Use a drug, get 4 games.
To me, that shows inconsistency in policy enforcement, which is detrimental to any ethics and compliance program, but particularly for a company like the NFL, a $9 billion organization which depends very heavily on the image of its players for its brand and revenue. The NFL should have a reputational risk mitigation strategy in place with controls, like compliance training, that help lessen risk. Inconsistency in conduct policy enforcement doesn’t mitigate that risk, it heightens it.
New NFL Penalties, Same Old Lack of Enforcement
When the second video came to light, the Baltimore Ravens terminated his contract and the NFL suspended him “indefinitely.” On August 28, just before the video surfaced and seemingly in response to the public outrage against Rice’s 2-game suspension, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced new, standardized penalties for domestic violence and sexual assault by any league personnel: a six-game suspension for a first offense and an indefinite suspension of at least one year for a second offense.
We can debate whether NFL players, because of the aggressive nature of the game, are more prone to this kind of behavior, but I think the 6-game suspension for a first offense is appalling. Any domestic violence is a violation of the league’s conduct policy, not to mention a crime, and should be penalized much more harshly. And while no one should need compliance training to know that domestic violence is wrong, from an ethics and compliance standpoint, it’s a key way to mitigate any risk.
This is not the only example of inconsistent policy enforcement by the NFL. Just last week San Francisco 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald was allowed to play in the season opener after he was arrested on domestic violence charges, after the new “standardized penalties” were announced.
A few days ago, Goodell announced that a former FBI agent is conducting an investigation to determine “what the NFL knew and when they knew it” about the Ray Rice videos. This is just one Code of Conduct investigation: Goodell hired an attorney to investigate issues of workplace conduct with the Miami Dolphins in November and the Minnesota Vikings hired two attorneys to complete an independent review of former punter Chris Kluwe’s allegations of retaliation against the team.
Maybe my next football blog will be on investigations.
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