The last few months must not have been easy on Aldon Smith. I don't want to seem like I am excusing any of his actions. He's led a dangerous lifestyle for himself and others, but I've got to imagine that being in and out of court, risking jail time, and seeing his name run through the media-gauntlet has been brutal. And, I hope this brutality, this recent treatment by the media and the legal system, gives Smith the rude awakening he needs. That's the point of the system. That's what we want to the legal process to do though it does not have the rate of success that we want-but that's a whole separate issue.
What probably won't change Smith's attitude toward life and his actions is a suspension from the NFL. I'm not trying to argue that he shouldn't be suspended. Not at all. If only for the sake of consistency and fairness to other players who have done similar things, he should be suspended. But, this whole Smith situation has gotten me thinking: what is the point of a suspension?
As you might guess from what I've just written, I don't think they are particularly effective deterrents for players. We've seen them handed out time and again, and yet players, new and oldcontinue to receive suspensions for doing things that have just gotten other players in trouble. Some players get suspended multiple times for similar actions. The one player that comes to mind immediately, given that the suspensions have been recent, is
Seattle New England's Brandon Browner for violating the substance abuse policy. Fortunately, we haven't seen a ton of repeat suspensions recently. And, I'd like to see it stay that way. I just wonder if suspensions are the most effective way of keeping players on the right side of the law.
And that distinction is good to make: suspensions because of legal trouble and suspensions because of internal NFL problems, like substance abuse policy violations and illegal hits. The suspensions dealing with legal troubles falls under the NFL's personal-conduct policy. This is why Ben Roethlisberger was suspended in 2010, for example. Also suspended in 2010 was Vincent Jackson for a DUI. Both fell under the personal-conduct policy category of suspensions.
And this is the category of suspensions that I am interested in discussing today. To revisit the Browner example I used earlier, we might say that Browner is not a great example for comparing with Smith because Browner violated league rules by taking a substance the league deems might make the game unfair (there are other, thorny issues to discuss here, like what the NFL will do about legal marijuana usage, but those questions are for another time-or for the comments section!). It seems reasonable that the NFL have some sort of way to regulate fairness and competitiveness. Suspensions for illegal hits and unfair drugs seems to be the route they have chosen.
But, why then regulate legal conduct? Isn't that best regulated by the courts of the state not the courts of Roger Goodell's office? Perhaps the NFL believes that suspensions are better deterrents than I do. And, it should be noted, that only five players have been suspended for a substantial amount of game since Goddell instituted the personal conduct policy suspensions (Adam "Pacman" Jones, Chris Henry, Tank Johnson, Michael Vick, and Ben Roethlisberger). To be fair, the NFL doesn't take these suspensions likely.
Moreover, we don't know what sort of suspension Smith will receive and what the rationale will be for his suspension. I don't want to seem like I am preemptively criticizing the NFL for whatever they do in this situation. It just seems to me that the NFL is much more interested in protecting their public image than anything else. Goodell has basically said so himself, remarking as justification for the personal conduct policy suspensions "It is important that the NFL be represented consistently by outstanding people as well as great football players, coaches, and staff. We hold ourselves to higher standards of responsible conduct because of what it means to be part of the National Football League."
At some point, though, I think the public can recognize that when an employee does something illegal on his or her time, it does not invalidate the moral and ethical standards of an entire institution.
So, Smith will likely be suspended in a manner that is consistent with how the NFL has conducted itself in recent years. Frankly, he probably deserves it. He has done some horrible things. I think, though, that it provides us an opportunity to ask why certain suspensions exist and to what end they are enforced.