The NFL suspended Jim Irsay six games and fined him $500,000 after the Colts owner pleaded guilty to driving while under the influence of prescription painkillers. That means he's not allowed to attend practices or games, league meetings, or tweet about the Colts. Is that really such a stiff punishment?
Some NFL players clearly don't think so.
"Bulls—t penalty," the player said. "Roger taking it easy on his boss."
A few more texts from team player reps buzzed in, and they all took similar tones. Some of the key words: "bulls—t," "crap," "double standard," "players get judged harsher" … you get the picture.
The criticisms of the league's punishment tend to fall into two rough categories, typified nicely by comments collected by ESPN's football beat guys. The first is that a half-million -dollar fine is nothing to a guy like Jim Irsay, who's worth an estimated $1.7 billion.
[DE Jerry] Hughes, whom the Colts traded to Buffalo in 2013, noted how Irsay was fined only $500,000 while Denver Broncos receiver Wes Welker will lose $1.8 million while serving his four-game suspension for breaking the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
"I'll just let the numbers speak for themselves," Hughes said. "I mean, he's a billionaire, so I'm pretty sure [$500,000] won't hurt too badly."
The second qualm is a better one. It notes that player suspensions hurt the entire team. But suspending an owner—keeping him out of the stadium on gameday—doesn't materially or competitively affect the Colts in any way.
"For your organization to win ballgames, I don't really see that playing a big part with it," Tennessee Titans safety Michael Griffin said. "What does it do actually to the team? Suspend him for six games — he can still watch at home, he's on vacation."
(That's a fairly big assumption, that the Colts as an NFL team deserve to suffer for its owner's transgressions. But it's not any weirder than a team suffering for the conduct of a single player.)
Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman takes a moderate tack, noting first that the $500,000 fine was the maximum allowable under the league's personal conduct policy. But that wouldn't have precluded the NFL from taking away draft picks, the only currency besides money that would matter to an owner. The league has done it before, taking picks from the Patriots for Spygate and the Saints for the bounty scandal, even considering stripping picks from the Steelers for Mike Tomlin straying into the field of play, before ultimately deciding against doing so.
Freeman's second argument in favor of the NFL's actions re: Irsay is noting what a player would have faced under the same circumstances. The CBA dictates that a player receiving a first DUI, with no other accompanying violations, would not be suspended and could only be fined up to $50,000.
Given that, it's hard to say that Roger Goodell didn't come down much harder on an owner than he would have on a player—which is what the commissioner promised to do all along. But it's clear the players upset over what they perceive as a slight censure for Irsay isn't pegged to his ultimate legal standing, a plea deal to a single misdemeanor. It's about getting pulled over, stoned out of his mind and stumbling everywhere, with a briefcase and two laundry bags, all filled with cash and pills. If that same circumstance happened to a notable NFL player, you can bet the league would find a way around its own personal conduct policy limitations.
So, then, we're left with Freeman's concession that Goodell's hands were tied here by something other than collective bargaining.
There is also a structural flaw that Goodell simply can't overcome. Irsay is his boss. The punishment, to me, was stiff, but there is no group of people tighter than NFL owners. I don't think Goodell could have suspended Irsay longer without an owner revolt.
That's probably all that needs to be said. In the NFL and in any workplace, shit rolls downhill, and punishment comes from above. This is roughly what happens when you fuck up and there's no one above you. "It's kind of like a slap on the wrist," Jerry Hughes told ESPN. "But it is what it is. It's the business."