There’s been no shortage of controversies recently when it comes to questions of whether teams are playing by the rules, as well as the on- and off-the-field conduct of professional athletes.
But how do leagues respond when these situations arise?
A panel discussion Thursday night at the University of New Hampshire School of Law co-sponsored by Sports Illustrated will explore personal conduct and fair play policies in professional sports.
Michael McCann is director of the sports and entertainment law institute at UNH Law. He’s on tonight’s panel and joins Morning Edition to talk about the event.
One of the big topics you’ll look at tonight is the DeflateGate controversy that surrounded the New England Patriots heading into the Super Bowl.
Many have been critical of how the NFL has handled this investigation. What’s your take?
I think there is reason to be critical of the NFL, especially given the leaks that came out of the league office apparently, which cast a suspicion over the Patriots that they had engaged in wrongdoing. I think that set the tone, particularly at a sensitive time right before the Super Bowl that created a challenge for the Patriots that could have given the team a comparative disadvantage in the Super Bowl. It didn’t happen obviously; they won. But I think it was concerning how information was revealed and I also I think there’s uncertainty as to what exactly happened. We’ve seen so many different accounts as to whether the balls were underinflated and why. Was it science? Was it tampering? We have no idea. I think the league has done a disservice by not providing clarity to that issue. The investigation continues and we’re now into March.
Of course, there’s also the off the field conduct issues, most notably the Ray Rice domestic violence charges. What do these kinds of controversies mean for leagues like the NFL as far as public perception?
There’s a public perception any time we see a star player arrested for a crime, particularly one like domestic violence that’s really important and worthy of discussion. I think there’s a sense that a lot of players are engaged in that behavior when in fact the data suggests that NFL players aren’t misbehaving any more than other men of the same age group. So it isn’t as if there’s an epidemic of NFL players doing something that other men aren’t doing.
That’s not to say it’s not important and I think we’re going to discuss how the league has addressed these issues and also the role of the players association, the role of a union. The fact that rules have been collectively bargained and the NFL’s gotten into some trouble in those respects. We know with Ray Rice, a former federal judge ruled the NFL had punished him twice. I think the NFL has some issues as far as what rules are in place, when to apply them, and how they’re applying them.
Have you seen any big differences among the four major sports leagues when it comes to how they handle these controversies?
The other leagues I think have generally been seen as doing a better job. The NBA had a player last year named Jeffrey Taylor who plays in Charlotte who was charged with domestic violence. The league initially held off on doing anything significant. He was unable to play as part of an agreement with the team. He was still paid, but later on the NBA investigated when there was finality in his criminal process and suspended him. There was some predictability in that approach, as opposed to treating him differently than other players.
Is there anything to show fans want to see leagues be more aggressive when reacting to these controversies? Do fans care?
I think fans care, to some extent. I don’t think it impacts whether they’re going to watch the game on Sunday. TV ratings for the NFL and other leagues have remained high. The NFL’s made more money than ever before, despite what many would consider to be a pretty difficult, troubled year for the league in terms of off-field issues and how the league responded to them.
I think fans care in the sense that they may relate to some of these issues. They know domestic violence is very serious, they know that corporal punishment of a child in ways that we find unacceptable is a serious matter. But it doesn’t seem to have an impact on whether they watch games. I think leagues know that. I think leagues to some extent know they’re insulated in terms of the product that’s on the field versus the troubles off the field.