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Aldon Smith suspension and the arbitrary nature of NFL discipline

News came down on Friday afternoon indicating the 49ers star outside linebacker, Aldon Smith will be suspended for 9-games due to violations of the substance abuse policy and the personal conduct policy. We look at the NFL's uneven history of punishment, the behavior and break down the arbitrary 9-game suspension.

Norm Hall

News came down on Friday afternoon indicating the San Francisco 49ers star outside linebacker, Aldon Smith will be suspended for 9 games due to violations of the substance abuse policy and the personal conduct policy. According to reports, Smith appealed the decision and lost his appeal. The nine game suspension is final.

The most frustrating part of the decision is the judgment is rendered without explanation. In any judicial decision, you may not agree with it, but when there is an explanation -- you can come to an understanding on why a decision was made.

If Roger Goodell articulated the specific reasons for giving Aldon Smith the longest non full season suspension ever issued, people might be able to better understand the punishment. There is no transparency in the NFL. Goodell hands down punishments and we may hear leaks here and there about possible reasons, but we never know exactly why players get what they do. It only makes it more arbitrary and adds to the inconsistency.

NFL's Uneven History of Punishment

The league's uneven history of punishment has come under fire recently, especially after Roger Goodell suspended star running back, Ray Rice for two games under the NFL's personal conduct policy. Goodell indicated his personal meeting with Rice impacted the decision positively; but, to many NFL fans, the punishment seemed incommensurate with the crime.

We saw the elevator doors open and a man drop a woman outside an elevator. The woman falls to her knees, and then to the floor, but her feet prevent the doors from closing. The man is holding the woman's purse as he tries to move her unconscious body out of the way using his feet. She does not budge. He tries to pick her up again, but it's difficult for him. I suspect unconscious bodies are heavy, even for a professional football player. Then the video ends.

At a press conference after issuing the Rice suspension, Goodell stated, "We can't just make up the discipline. It has to be consistent with other cases and it was consistent with other cases."

Last Thursday, the NFL introduced a new discipline policy for violations of the Personal Conduct Policy regarding assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault that involve physical force. Clearly, Goodell felt the effects of a public relations nightmare and even went on to state he made a mistake with the decision. To me, it was a classic case of damage control.

Breaking down Aldon Smith's 9-game suspension

Comments from Goodell indicate Smith's 9-game suspension is broken down to four games under the substance abuse policy, and five games for violation of the personal conduct policy.

Driving under the influence is serious crime. As members of SB Nation, we are self-admittedly fans of a team. Regardless of my fandom, I consider it the most serious of all his actions. While Goodell stated he would factor in Smith's rehab stint when determining punishment, he decidedly changed his position at some point between now and last Fall. Needless to say, considering the seriousness of drunken driving, most would not take issue with Goodell handing down a four game suspension for Aldon Smith's second incident of DUI (the first, in Florida, was knocked down to reckless driving via a first time offender program).

Yet, with regard to the five game suspension for violating the personal conduct policy, the punishable behavior was the LAX bomb debacle and the possession of high powered rifles. The bulk of the punishment came from these two incidents. Under the same jurisdiction that ruled on the personal conduct of Ray Rice, Smith received five games. The disparity speaks for itself.

It is absolutely true there is no clear guidance on how to handle off-field offenses, because there is no precedent on every single awful thing a player may do. Most of the time, the NFL reserves suspensions until after the courts render a disposition. Given the fact no charges were brought against Smith for the LAX incident, it is difficult to imagine that incident (albeit boneheaded) would justify much, if anything. So, it is reasonable to assume, the bulk of the personal conduct suspension surrounds the weapons.

Misdemeanor Weapons Possession

On July 18, a Santa Clara judge sentenced a contrite Aldon Smith for his no contest pleas to DUI and possession of assault rifles. The judge noted Smith purchased the guns legally in Arizona. The Santa Clara County police discovered them after a house party Smith and Delanie Walker hosted in June 2012. Note, every irresponsible thing Smith may have done at the house party, Walker also engaged in. The only difference is Walker wasn't the owner of the weapons.

After discovery of the weapons in June of 2012, Smith was not a suspect or under investigation of any kind concerning the weapons. In fact, on June 15, 2013, he and other 49er players were invited to a fundraiser at the sheriff's shooting range. In an effort to raise money for the non-profit Sheriff's Advisory Board, the players were invited to shoot the police department's high powered weapons.

Why would Aldon Smith be invited to this event if he was under investigation for felony weapons charges? It does not make sense. Not only did the Santa Clara District Attorney wait 15 months to press weapons charges against Smith, it appears the Sheriff never considered Smith a suspect -- not even two days before the charges were filed. These facts only tear down the integrity of the investigation, and it certainly does not inspire confidence in the Santa Clara Sheriff or District Attorney.

From a legal standpoint, getting a conviction by jury on these weapons charges would have been next to impossible. According to the public information, Smith purchased the guns legally in Arizona (days before the 49ers played the Arizona Cardinals) in December of 2011. In order to comply with California law, the guns needed modification and registration with the state of California. According to the allegations, the weapons were neither modified nor registered.

Possession of assault weapons in California is a specific intent crime. Specific intent means the DA must prove that Smith knew, or should have known, the guns were illegal and intentionally possessed them with such knowledge. Intent is often confused with motive; however, the two legal elements are different. Whether the suspect intended to break the law does not matter. The legal issue is whether Smith had the desire (or knowledge) to precisely break the law. It is a state of mind, not the reason he committed the crime. The legal elements are more difficult to prove.

Smith purchased the guns legally in Arizona. If Smith didn't know modifications were a requisite in California, he has an excellent defense. It provides reasonable doubt.

If Smith's case had gone to trial, the DA was unlikely to get a conviction. Based on the facts and the law, it is easily arguable Smith did not break California law. And, the DA and the judge likely had the same opinion of the facts and law, which is why Smith was easily able to achieve an agreement on all charges with the judge for community service and probation in exchange for a no contest plea.

If the decision had been "not guilty" by jury, would Goodell have suspended him? What if Smith played for the Arizona Cardinals? There would have been no suspension as it relates to the weapons charges, because the guns were purchased and possessed legally in that state.

The disparity of the Smith's decision as compared to others is gigantic. Before Ray Rice, for the previous 15 cases of domestic violence (punished under the old, nonspecific guidelines), the average number of games suspended was 1.5 games. The average number of games suspended for all personal conduct violations is 3 games. The punishment is completely inconsistent with other (arguably more serious) issues in the league. Moreover, if Aldon Smith played for the Arizona Cardinals, the same exact actions would not have violated the personal conduct policy.

Arbitrary NFL Rulings

It really goes to show how arbitrary things can be. Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon was recently suspended for a year due to a failed marijuana test. In taking the test, Gordon submitted two samples to the NFL. The A sample was above the threshold for marijuana and the B sample was below. The NFL randomly tests one or the other. According to the rules, if they had tested the B sample (which tested below the threshold) first, they would have never tested the second sample. He would not be suspended for one year. Unfortunate for Gordon, the luck of the draw was not in his favor.

Likewise, if Smith played for the Arizona Cardinals, the NFL would not have suspended him under the personal conduct policy, because the same actions are legal in that state. Again, I guess it's just the luck of the draw.