When the indescribably disturbing video of Ray Rice punching his wife and knocking her to the floor went public, much outrage was directed towards the NFL, and more specifically towards Commissioner Roger Goodell. TMZ focused on trying to prove that the NFL had buried its head in the sand and willfully ignored the video for months before it was posted online. The President of the National Organization for Women called for Goodell’s resignation. The NFL scrambled on damage control, initially suspending Rice for two games and then suspending him indefinitely. Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers was deactivated after playing the season opener and ultimately put on the Commissioner exempt list (which is effectively a suspension with salary) after being found guilty for a July 15 arrest for domestic assault. When two other NFL players were charged with domestic abuse—Adrian Peterson and Jonathan Dwyer—the public looked to the NFL for a strong response to make up for its previous inaction on Rice.
But while we may be disappointed in the league’s response, we should be more disappointed in our own judicial system that let Rice walk away with a not guilty plea and enter a pretrial diversion program without further legal ramifications. We shouldn’t be turning to the NFL to execute justice; we should be turning to the cops, prosecutors, courts, and trials that we trust (rightly or wrongly) to adequately reprimand all criminals, whether athletes or non-athletes, and deliver justice to victims.
When we crave immediate and harsh punishment for egregious crimes, organizations outside of the judicial system have often become the object of public ire for failing to serve as adequate arbiters of justice. The NFL is far from the only example. American universities have come under censure for failing to adequately protect students from sexual and physical assault. Like the NFL, they have a long history of poorly responding—and sometimes, altogether ignoring—victims of assault.
But as more people realize how pervasive sexual assault is on campuses, there have been greater calls on universities to reform their disciplinary policies, from creating more confidential resources to changing the definition of sexual consent. Rarely mentioned is the fact that cases of rape, sexual assault, and other violent physical crimes belong in the court system, and should not just be tried by a council made up of teenagers and faculty members at a liberal arts college.
When the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault published its guidelines for universities in April, the thrust was on improving campus disciplinary systems and services for victims. While they did encourage “open[ing] the lines of communication and increas[ing] coordination among campus security, local law enforcement, and other community groups,” the guidelines implicitly expected the schools to be a source for victims’ recourse, if not the prime one. Tips included:
“trauma-informed training for school officials”“deciding what is or is not consent to sexual activity”“experimenting with new models” for “school’s adjudication process”
While well intentioned, assault reforms aimed at campuses are misguided. Attempts to mold professors, students, and guidance counselors into law enforcement officials who are professionally trained to investigate and prosecute crimes can result in kangaroo courts. Two recent lawsuits against the University of Massachusetts-Amherst have raised major concerns about the effectiveness of campus disciplinary councils. Not only does UMass (and many other schools) rely on a preponderance of evidence standard for criminal allegations, the suits accuse the school disciplinary council of major biases, the selective removal of evidence and testimony, and having students and faculty serve as judge and juror.
The suits suggest a lack of due process for the accused when colleges run the trial, but they do not even begin to show how frustrating the experience is for alleged victims. UMass was one of the 55 schools being investigated by the federal government for Title IX violations for their mishandling of sexual assault, which indicates the school suffers even graver problems with their ability to prevent crimes and deliver justice to victims. The accused male students may have been made into isolated whipping boys to detract from the severely inadequate recourse for victims.
It is not unreasonable that schools swung into hypervigilance once they were under federal and media scrutiny. That’s exactly what the NFL is scrambling to do now. A week after the Rice video went public, the league hired four new women to specifically tackle sexual assault and domestic violence policy. At best they can help reform the NFL’s notoriously out-of-whack suspension system, at worst they are mere PR move. But there is no way they can help make the NFL a replacement for the adjudication process the courts system can deliver.
This isn’t to say that the NFL or colleges should simply maintain the status quo. Many colleges have clearly failed to establish safe campuses. Heartbreaking stories from across the country detail the way schools ignored victims’ cries for help. These aren’t proof that the school should improve their disciplinary system, but rather they must do a better job preventing these crimes in the first place and making it as easy as possible for students to go to local law enforcement authorities.
In that same vein, the NFL should absolutely change a penalty system that has issued pot users longer suspensions than alleged murderers. In January 2000, another Baltimore Ravens player, Ray Lewis, was charged with murder and ultimately got away with pleading guilty to obstruction of justice (another lenient system due to the courts system, not the league). Still, the NFL simply fined him $250,000 and he was named MVP of the Super bowl the following season. Meanwhile, Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns was issued a season-long suspension for testing positive for trace amounts of marijuana (a suspension that was reduced this week in light of the new drug policy, but will still be 10-weeks long). As an employer, it is completely with the NFL’s right to suspend or fire players—their employees—as soon as an arrest is made. They should be exercising that right far more consistently than they have in the past.
But as frustrating as it when we read about horrifying campus rape accounts or watch video of Ray Rice knocking out his wife, neither colleges nor sports leagues can deliver the immediate justice we crave. The U.S. criminal court system is imperfect, and many people, including football players (Ray Rice, O.J. Simpson) and college students who are football players (Jameis Winston), have first-hand experience with that. But relying on private organizations to be an arbiter of justice inevitably creates problems for the both the victims and the accused. And when we’re angry that college students accused of assault are allowed to get their diplomas, and that athletes accused of assault maintain their high-salaried careers and game day glory, our own justice system deserves the blame and scrutiny.