With great inconsistency, is the short answer. Anyone interested in what may happen with Deshaun Watson should read this.
Ray McDonald was playing for the San Francisco 49ers in August 2014 when he was arrested for allegedly assaulting his pregnant fiance.
Charges were never filed. He never missed a game.
Four months later, in December 2014, McDonald became a suspect in a sexual assault case. The 49ers cut him from the team, but the NFL did not take action.
The Chicago Bears signed McDonald three months later, in March 2015. The rape charges were dismissed in 2017 after the victim declined to testify.
In May 2015, McDonald was in trouble yet again. He was arrested after allegedly assaulting his ex-fiancee in California while she was holding their infant son. A grand jury declined to indict him on the domestic violence charge.
The Bears cut him from the team. The NFL has not taken action, and McDonald has not played since.
Cases such as McDonald’s illustrate the NFL’s inconsistent punishment system for players accused of sexual and domestic violence, experts in sports and violence culture say: As long as a player is good and making a team money, they will receive some modicum of protection.
The league took steps to improve its domestic and sexual violence education — and strengthen its punishment policy — after Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice in 2014 knocked his then-fiancee unconscious in an elevator in Atlantic City. Now, the league’s baseline is a six-game suspension for the first violent — or threat of violence — offense and a lifetime ban for the second. The player does not have to be charged or convicted of a crime to receive this punishment.
It is very difficult to track how many NFL players are accused of violent offenses and whether they faced punishment by their teams or the league. The NFL does not maintain a public database of its disciplinary actions.
However, using a USA Today database supplemented by Houston Chronicle reporting, the newspaper found nearly 80 instances in which players had been accused of, cited, arrested or charged with violent offenses since January 2015, after the NFL revised its policy.
Only 27 of the 68 players examined by the Chronicle received an NFL suspension, and often the punishments doled out were inconsistent. At least nine players from 2015 to present were repeatedly accused, arrested or charged with a violent crime, often before receiving any sanctions from the league.
About 32 percent of those nearly 80 instances resulted in punishment through the criminal justice system. In the instances they were not, cases are still ongoing, the players were acquitted or the charges were dropped. Some accusations were not reported to police or the alleged victims recanted their stories or declined to proceed.
There’s a lot more, so read the whole thing. The NFL has been bad at this for a long time (other sports leagues are not much better), but they’re at least more engaged with the issue now. It’s a complicated question, and how the leagues respond will need to continue to evolve. If you’re any kind of sports fan, you’ve had to deal with a lot of mixed feelings over this. It’s not going to get any easier.