On Monday, a Nebraska judge ruled that Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard could stay free until sentencing, even though he had just admitted to violating probation. To understand the situation fully, it’s important to take a look at everything that has led up to this point: Dennard was the Patriots’ seventh-round pick in 2012, falling several rounds on draft day because he punched a cop a week before. In his rookie season, he played well while awaiting his felony trial for the cop-punching incident. This April, his sentencing mandated that he would begin his (seemingly short) 30-day sentence in March 2014, about four weeks after the NFL season ends. Then, Dennard violated his probation by drinking (as he admitted) and by allegedly driving drunk (which he denies due to questions over the breathalyzer samples). His court date for the DUI arrest is Oct. 8, but he’s lucky that the judge has allowed him to remain free after violating his probation stemming from a felony conviction. It seems obvious that that the reason Dennard’s legal situation has proceeded in such a favorable manner is because he’s a professional athlete and that the Patriots are probably assisting his legal case.
Dennard’s case shows why the idea that the NFL, and especially the Patriots, have “learned” from the Aaron Hernandez situation is laughable. In addition to Dennard, the Patriots’ roster consists ofKenbrell Thompkins, a rookie who finished college at age 24 in part due to being arrested seven times by age 18. Patriots’ roster-builder Bill Belichick is known for signing players with dubious criminal histories, but his team isn’t the only one doing it. Only 11 days before releasing wideout CedrickWilson for punching his girlfriend, the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t discipline linebacker James Harrison for slapping his girlfriend. The difference? Harrison was an amazing player, Wilson was OK. Also, the Baltimore Ravens chose to continue employing both All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis, who pled guilty to obstruction of justice in a murder case and All-Pro running back Jamal Lewis, who was charged with conspiring to distribute cocaine.
I could go on, but the point is clear. Teams in the NFL are not going to change their ways regarding players and their legal matters anytime soon. While there are notable exceptions, like the Patriots’ immediate release of Aaron Hernandez because he was almost definitely involved in Odin Lloyd’s murder, the actions teams will take to protect their chances of winning are nearly universal: If he’s a great player, you stand by him and make sure he can still play on Sunday.
It confuses me when people have a problem with this recurring process and then insist that Roger Goodell should suspend a troubled player under the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy.
The policy is as much of a joke as the naive idea that teams care more about their players’ morality than winning; it’s in effect only for political and business reasons.
The policy is in place not because the NFL truly cares about its players’ morality but so that Roger Goodell can deal with certain cases in ways that allow the league to protect its public image. For example, when there was intriguing evidence against Ben Roethlisberger in a rape case in 2010 and when women’s groups started coming after the Steelers and the NFL, Goodell could calm those voices by saying, “We suspended him for six games, so we’re taking firm action.” (Never mind that the suspension was later shortened to four games.) Also, Goodell suspended Michael Vick for the first two games of the 2009 season after Vick had just finished serving a 21-month prison sentence because Goodell supposedly wanted to remind Vick that he was on thin ice. After all, if 21 months didn’t fix his character, two more games definitely would. However, many believed that Goodell simply didn’t want Vick to be the focus of Week 1.
The NFL uses the Personal Conduct Policy to calm critical voices and keep the focus off the league’s troubled players because, in ways similar to how individual teams care about winning more than their players’ morality, the league cares more about the business’ product than the employees’ morality. If the NFL primarily cared about the morality of its players, it wouldn’t allow the Patriots to keep playing Alfonzo Dennard, let alone whatever they’re probably doing to help him in court.
While it sounds like I disagree with signing players with questionable characters, actually, I don’t. As I’ve written before in a column on “Hoya Paranoia,” I don’t mind teams taking on players with dirt under their fingernails (with some extreme exceptions), because fans and media alike will judge coaches harshly for not showing a “commitment to winning” when they don’t go the extra mile to be victorious. Part of going the extra mile is taking chances with risky guys.
But what I don’t understand is why many fans and media continue to believe that the NFL and its teams put a huge emphasis on employing good guys. It’s simply not true. Examining a case like Alfonzo Dennard’s will show that NFL teams will not only deal with a troubled player but might even reach outside the scope of football to get him back on the field faster. And examining the ways that the Personal Conduct Policy is used will prove that it’s more of a business and political clause, not a moral one.
As a Pats fan, I hope that Dennard isn’t found guilty of a DUI, gets his December sentencing date moved back two months and records the game-winning pick-six in February’s Super Bowl right before being whisked off to prison. I just hope that nobody claims that the Patriots or the NFL care more about his criminal record than his play.
Tom Hoff Is a junior in the McDonough School of Business. DOWN TO THE WIRE appears every Friday.