The most important thing to note about the NFL's new rules on domestic violence is that they are neither new nor are they rules. They are words strung together in such a way that people will respond by saying, "Wow, the NFL takes domestic violence seriously."
And it worked. In my earlier post immediately following the announcement, I referred to the "severe new penalties for domestic violence," but on further reflection, I got okey-doked too. Here's the relevant part of the letter Roger Goodell sent to owners today:
Effective immediately, violations of the Personal Conduct Policy regarding assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault that involve physical force will be subject to a suspension without pay of six games for a first offense, with consideration given to mitigating factors, as well as a longer suspension when circumstances warrant... A second offense will result in banishment from the NFL; while an individual may petition for reinstatement after one year, there will be no presumption or assurance that the petition will be granted. These disciplinary standards will apply to all NFL personnel.
Please note that all this change does is sub in a loose baseline—six games plus or minus "mitigating factors"—for a previously undefined suspension length that could always have been as long as Roger Goodell wanted it to be. The NFL could have chosen to suspend Ray Rice for six games without passing these rules. The NFL could have suspended the next player to beat the shit out of his wife for six games, without needing to refer to any new rules.
Domestic violence offenses still fall under the league's Personal Conduct Policy, with which the NFLPA inexplicably handed the NFL unilateral control over discipline not specifically covered in the CBA. Players will still have the right to appeal their punishments and likely get them reduced. Literally nothing has changed.
Well, that's not precisely true. Now the NFL gets to see its name in headlines touting its zero tolerance policy for domestic violence. Look how many stories include the phrase "lifetime ban," even though a second offense actually garners an "indefinite" suspension from which the player can apply for reinstatement after one year. Josh Gordon is currently serving the same "lifetime ban" for failing a second drug test for marijuana. At least hitting a bong is no longer worse in the league's eyes than hitting a woman; it's now equally bad.
But Goodell's "Message: I care" announcement today isn't about specifics; it's about projecting an aura of authority, even in the midst of a frantic rowback on the NFL's tone-deaf handling of the Rice case. We're all complicit in allowing the league to present itself as a moral arbiter. Aaron Gordon nailed the dynamic earlier this month:
The personal conduct policy is a tremendously successful marketing effort which has resulted in people equating the NFL and Goodell himself with justice. Regardless of whether the NFL actually has the power to shift societal views, people believe it does, which puts it in rarified territory. It makes the NFL not just a sports league, but a cultural institution.
No one should be looking to the NFL or the sports world for ethical guidance on anything, to say nothing of subjects like domestic violence or recreational drug use, both sufficiently fucked up within our legal system. It's nice that Goodell recognizes he tripped all over his own dick in the Rice matter, but don't lose sight of the fact that today he's nothing more than Moses coming down from the mountain, bearing a press release.