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Rice Departs as Hardy Plays Following Assault Conviction

As Ray Rice serves his indefinite suspension from the National Football League, Greg Hardy is set to start for the Carolina Panthers tomorrow even after being convicted of assaulting his former girlfriend.

Hardy, 26, a Pro Bowl defensive end, in July was given a 60-day suspended jail sentence, which he will appeal via a jury trial scheduled for Nov. 17, the day after the Week 11 home game against the Atlanta Falcons. Also tomorrow, defensive end Ray McDonald will suit up for the San Francisco 49ers, two weeks after he was arrested on felony domestic violence charges.

By contrast, Rice was released by the Baltimore Ravens and banned from the league by Commissioner Roger Goodell after video was released of the running back punching his then-fiancee in the head and knocking her unconscious. While the NFL’s drug-policy penalties are collectively bargained by the NFL Players Association, Goodell has leeway in handing down penalties for off-field behavior deemed detrimental to the sport.

“What the policy says, and I’m not in the least intending to defend the commissioner, is that he’s supposed to take into account individual differences and situations,” said Paul Haagen, a professor of sports and contract law at the Duke University School of Law in Durham, North Carolina. “Given the policy, what the commissioner is essentially doing, or claiming to be doing, is saying that the cases are different.”

Rice initially was suspended two games by the NFL. Goodell’s revised discipline came the day the surveillance video was broadcast on television networks across the U.S. and about two weeks after the NFL, amid criticism, announced harsher penalties for players involved in domestic abuse cases.

Enhanced Discipline

Goodell has said Hardy and McDonald would be subject to discipline under the new domestic violence policy, which specifies a six-game ban for a first offense and the potential of a lifetime suspension for repeat offenders.

By comparison, Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon was handed a season-long ban for a second failed drug test, while Denver Broncos receiver Wes Welker was ordered to miss four games after testing positive for amphetamines.

Hardy was found guilty in North Carolina on charges of communicating threats and assaulting a woman after an altercation with his now ex-girlfriend. He’ll start tomorrow when the Panthers host the Detroit Lions.

The Panthers’ 78-year-old owner Jerry Richardson, without mentioning Hardy, spoke out against domestic violence while receiving a humanitarian award at an event in Charlotte this week, calling it an issue that weighs heavily on the NFL and society.

Earning Trust

“To those who would suggest that we’ve been too slow to act, I ask that you consider not to be too quick to judge,” Richardson said. “Over the course of our 20 years, we have worked extremely hard to build an organization of integrity and earn the trust of your community.”

Dan Wallach, an attorney at Becker & Poliakoff and contributor to Sports Law Blog, said North Carolina has a “very archaic criminal procedural policy” that gives Hardy the right to a jury trial, keeping his case open.

“You would think Hardy would be suspended under the personal-conduct policy,” Wallach said. “But it makes it more difficult for the commissioner to suspend a first-time offender who hasn’t been adjudicated.”

McDonald was arrested Aug. 31 on felony domestic violence charges, days after Goodell revealed the increased penalties for domestic abuse and sexual assault.

Visible Injuries

Although an arrest report from the San Jose Police Department said the victim had “visible injuries,” McDonald played in the 49ers’ season-opening game as officials decide whether to charge him. He’s set to be on the field when the 49ers host the Chicago Bears tomorrow night.

“Each case is its own individual entity,” 49ers Chief Executive Officer Jed York said on KNBR Radio in San Francisco. “As a society, we have a sense of saying, ‘Well, you didn’t do it right with Ray Rice right away so you need to overdo it with Ray McDonald or whoever else it is.’ I don’t believe that’s the country that we live in. I don’t think that’s a fair way to approach it.”

The NFL banned another 49ers defensive end, Aldon Smith, for the first nine games of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse and personal conduct policies. Smith pleaded no contest to drunken driving and weapons charges.

Harming yourself or an animal may land a stiffer penalty than violence against a woman, if past punishments are any indicator.

NFL Suspensions

Goodell in 2009 indefinitely suspended Plaxico Burress for accidentally shooting himself in the leg at a Manhattan nightclub. The ban ran concurrently with the 20-month prison term the former New York Giants wide receiver served. Two years earlier, the NFL suspended quarterback Michael Vick indefinitely when he admitted conspiring to run a dogfighting operation Goodell called “cruel and reprehensible.”

But in 2010, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger received a six-game suspension after being accused of sexually assaulting two women. Roethlisberger, whose ban was reduced to four games, denied the accusations and no criminal charges were brought against him.

“In its genesis, it has a deeply public relations element,” Duke’s Haagen said of the NFL’s policy for dealing with off-field conduct detrimental to the league. “It gives the commissioner extraordinary latitude to do what he believes is appropriate under the circumstances.”

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