NFL & Violence: An Overview of the Personal Conduct Policy Fumbles in the NFL

The NFL has run out of excuses. A psychological take on the need to implement the positive changes in their Personal Conduct Policy.


The NFL has been nationally scrutinized for how poorly they handled personal conduct policy violations by players over the last 20 years.

The NFL needed to do better. It’s as if the NFL was sending a message that as long as players continued to produce on the field, bringing in revenue and popularity, that they could get a slap on the wrist and continue playing after violating the personal conduct policy. Around 2014, they had no choice but to change the way it handles these aggressive behaviors from players with their off the field conduct.

Unlike other major sports, the NFL had a unique task. In order to reach peak performance, players need to act aggressively on the field. On the contrary, they also need to be able to recognize when to control their aggression off the field. Problematic, right?

In 2016, the NFL introduced a new personal Conduct Policy to help rectify the increasingly severe violent and aggressive off-field actions from it’s players.  In their introduction of their Personal Conduct Policy, they made a lot of necessary and long overdue changes.

However, the introduction of the policy did not stop off the field violations. With continued violent conduct violations, the NFL needs to prove that the changes to the Policy are not a  public relations stunt to avoid bad press. They need to show, through their implication of the policy that they are able to adequately address these issues. For me, the NFL has run out of excuses or leeway in addressing these issues.

Recently, Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill have had significant conduct code violations. Kareem was videoed pushing a woman in a hotel lobby. Tyreek Hill was recorded speaking about abusing his son. Both of these cases are pending due to ongoing investigations. With a new Conduct Policy in place, the NFL has no excuse to inadequately address the above issues. The way the NFL deals with these two cases in particular, will ultimately reveal if the Personal Conduct Policy was for show or active change.

“The way the NFL deals with these two cases in particular, will ultimately reveal if the Personal Conduct Policy was for show or active change.”

The policy was intended to change the way the NFL dealt with conduct violations and the way they assisted players in adapting to their unique circumstance. The changes they made were long over due and vital to addressing problems with player behavior.

Before examining what they needed to fix and what they got right, let’s consider why this was such a unique challenge.

The NFL faced this unique challenge two-fold. First, much of the research indicates that “socially acceptable” aggression or violence, (such as tackling or hitting) can lead to aggression outside of its intended area. For instance, people that get are required by their job to be aggressive at times, subjectively, report more aggressive thinking.

Second, research supports that aggression can increase testosterone, which may lead to further violent or aggressive off field behaviors. Thus, continued prolonged violence/aggression correlates to more off the field violence/aggression.

Therefore, the very task of playing in the NFL can put players at higher risk for off field aggression.

Think of the NFL like a parent, and the players as children. Children will continue to act in certain ways until their behavior is either encouraged, altered or stopped by an authority figure.

Prior to the introduction of the New Personal Conduct Policy published in 2016, the NFL struggled with consistent regulation of violations. They also failed to support players in ways that would yield long term change.

Now, you may be reading this, incredulous, thinking things like, “They are extremely well paid adults, they need to be able to control themselves or get treatment on their own.” However, the number of violent offenses from 2000 until the present shed light on the lingering issues that the NFL was kept in the dark.

According to USA Today’s NFL arrest tracker, there have been approximately 113 incidents of reported/recorded assault/battery charges/arrests/citations by NFL players since 2000. Assault and battery account for approximately 12% of all arrests by NFL players. Most NFL players can draw the line between violence in pads and violence in public. However, if some players continued to demonstrate difficulty with off the field violence, it was the league’s job to step in.

So how did the NFL begin to fix its glaring problem? They made four major changes to the structure and purpose of the policy that can effectively address the problem.

They Became Proactive

The NFL had garnered much of its bad name by reacting. Reactions are just that—quick, knee-jerk responses to an incident. Addressing major issues this way, unsurprisingly, causes problems. In 2014, when video surfaced of Ray Rice punching his girlfriend in an elevator and knocking her out cold, he was initially suspended—but for only two games.

After this suspension, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell allegedly reported that he had “got it wrong.” This reactionary discipline was a major fault and pattern for personal conduct violations. The NFL now has a litany of investigative proceedings, creating effective and appropriate decisions that are consistent and clear.

The NFL has since developed a clear policy and procedures to limit guess work and reactive punishment.

Consistency Became Key

As mentioned above, being proactive can assist in maintaining consistency.

The NFL has a clear policy on cases of domestic and situational violence. Inconsistencies can make punishment or discipline handed down less effective; especially if the disciplinary action is delayed, does not match the accusation or differs from similar actions of others. There should be a clear outline as to what happens, when it happens and how it happens. Finally, the actions outlined need to happen each time as closely to procedure as possible.

“The NFL’s disciplinary measures need to be more like a vending machine rather than a slot machine.”

The NFL’s disciplinary measures need to be more like a vending machine rather than a slot machine. When a player pulls a lever, they need to know exactly what is going to happen.

They Addressed the Bigger Picture

If the NFL planned to continue to profit off of acceptable aggression, it needed to put programs in place that help players who struggle with the boundaries. Since this realization, the NFL has begun to invest in its players, through providing counseling, anger management groups, and having therapy available when players need it.

I commend the NFL for encouraging their players to not only seek support, but also providing the opportunity for education and continued learning on the effects of violence, and how it can be controlled. This encouragement is monumental, as not all players are able to draw the line, nor are they capable.

The NFL is now addressing these problems at the root of the situation.

Discipline versus Punishment

In general terms, punishment is intended to strike fear—and in doing so, creating compliance.

For example, lengthy suspensions or hefty fines are punishment enacted by the NFL. Discipline, on the other hand, is intended to teach. It is designed to foster learning and change through means other than fear alone. The NFL has made a noticeable shift. By implementing programs for players and other NFL personnel, they are disciplining, rather than strictly punishing.

For example, take Ray Rice.

He was suspended from the NFL, but that was the extent of it. Now, when a player is in a similar situation, the NFL offers counseling and other rehabilitation services to prevent repeat offenses. The NFL’s involvement in organizations fighting domestic violence has proved to be an active investment for both players and personnel.

Over the past 19 years, the NFL has had a number of high profile off the field violence incidents that have shed light into how broken the system was. The 2016 Personal Conduct Policy is a huge step In the right direction. The league owed it to their players and fans to implement programs to fix its current violence issues off the field.

The NFL cannot continue to botch serious personal conduct violations without sending the message, that talent and revenue outweigh morality.


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