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The NBA is Worse at Criminal Justice than the NFL

kyle lowry

Word broke today that the NFL has finally completed deliberations on the punishment for Ray Rice's offseason arrest over grisly charges that he assaulted his fiancee. The punishment, in total? A two-game suspension, coupled with a $58,000 fine and a recommendation from the NFL to attend counseling. Rice pleaded not guilty to the offense and was accepted into a pretrial intervention program that led the charges to be dropped, so that NFL penalty (in addition to the intervention program) will represent the sum total of Rice's punishment for his outburst. News flash: this isn't rare. Out of morbid curiosity, I've collected information about the last four years of assault or battery charges in the NBA from Google and the NBA Crime Library. Presented with minimal comment, and ordered by date:

  • June 2014: James Johnson was charged with domestic assault for allegedly slapping and choking his wife. The charges were dismissed because his wife did not appear in court. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • October 2013: Kendrick Perkins was charged with assault after punching a two passengers of an automobile in the face after an altercation in a bar parking lot. I have been unable to track down what happened here, but the league nor the Thunder never commented on the allegations. LEGAL PENALTIES: None (that I could find). LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • September 2013: Jared Sullinger was charged with assault and malicious destruction of property for allegedly discovering his girlfriend was cheating on him and beating her to the ground before smashing her cellphone. The charges were dropped when his ex-girlfriend refused to appear in court. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • May 2013: Terrence Williams was arrested on charges of assault, amidst allegations that he pulled a gun on his child's mother during an annual visitation and made threats. It does not appear that a trial ever occurred, although the Celtics waived him shortly after the news broke (likely as a result of the arrest). LEGAL PENALTIES: None. (That I could find). LEAGUE PENALTIES: None officially, although the Celtics did waive his contract.
  • January 2013: Andray Blatche was arrested on charges of sexual assault, allegedly standing in the doorway and watching as his friend raped a woman in Blatche's hotel room. Charges against Blatche were dropped several months later, although reports are unclear as to whether his friends evaded sentencing. Blatche played in an NBA game against the 76ers the exact same day he was arrested. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • September 2012: Jordan Hill was charged with felony assault for choking a former girlfriend. He pleaded guilty, dropping the charges from a felony to a misdemeanor. LEGAL PENALTIES: One year of probation, $500 fine, counseling. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • February 2011: Kyle Lowry was charged with misdemeanor battery for throwing a ball at a female ref during a preseason game and threatening the ref with physical violence. Lowry refused to appear in court, but his lawyer got the charges dropped in exchange for pleading guilty and community service. The NBA said nothing. LEGAL PENALTIES: 100 hours of community service. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • August 2010: Lance Stephenson was charged with assault and harrassment for throwing his then-girlfriend down a flight of stairs and allegedly slamming her head into the staircase. The case was eventually dismissed due to a lack of cooporation from his ex-girlfriend. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.

Actually, I lied. I said I'd present it without comment, but that doesn't really do it justice. Much of the NBA's twitter community has been devoted to jokes and observations about how horrifying and hypocritical the NFL is for letting Ray Rice get off with a two game suspension while players like Josh Gordon lose a year of their career for something as minor as a marijuana charge. It's true. It's hypocritical, awful, and unbelievably dumb. But a lot of talk has also been made about boycotting the NFL for their hypocrisy, and giving them financial ramifications for their hand-wavy attitude towards the serious issue of assault. My take? Do it. It's justified.

But if we're being honest, you'd be better off boycotting the NBA first.

It's hard to conclude that the NBA is anything if not much worse when it comes to league penalties for non-drug-related criminal behavior. Many of these players actually pleaded guilty without seeing any league penalty. Kyle Lowry pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge stemming from an actual on-court basketball game -- the league said nothing. Jordan Hill pleaded guilty -- the league said nothing. The rest of these are, for the most part, grisly cases with an abundance of evidence pointing to evidence of guilt. But most of them got off, and not once did the league take even a cursory action. The only two times the NBA players suffered a legitimate on-court penalty were times when the player was an expendable, fringe NBA talent who wasn't worth the hassle. These are all things that happened in the last four years.

And when it comes to former players and public figures, the ledger is just as full. Beloved Grantland contributor Jalen Rose pleaded guilty to a drunk driving charge stemming from an event where he got in a car almost immediately after having six martinis and rolled his Cadillac. He could've killed someone. Idolized general manager R.C. Buford was caught doing the same. Marv Albert is a generally accepted commentator, and one of the leading lights of the business -- hell, he's part of Blake Griffin's endorsement deal with Kia! -- but few people remember the disgusting charges of rape he faced back in the 90s. NBC fired him a few months into the scandal, but quietly re-hired him years later after he'd pleaded guilty to lesser charges and the public furor had died down a bit. He's still calling the NBA Finals, using the same voice he used on the stand when he argued that his assault was "consensual."

We can call this a massive moral failing, because it is. But in broad strokes, this is essentially how society treats these crimes. There's a curious amount of outrage over the NFL's punishment without the necessary realization that -- realistically -- this is one of the few times in the history of criminal justice where a sports league has accomplished the following three things in an assault case:

  1. The NFL punished a player who managed to get the charges dropped.
  2. The NFL punished a star player despite their status in the league, and gave a semi-meaningful suspension.
  3. The NFL made it clear that such an action was not OK, and essentially countered Baltimore's disgusting press conference.

The NFL is hardly perfect. It would be nice if they levied harsher punishment against Rice, and the juxtaposition between Rice's punishment and Josh Gordon's inexplicable marijuana suspension is comically off-base. But it's hardly more off-base than the actual criminal justice system's differential treatment of those particular crimes, with assault cases regularly falling apart over extremely minor inconsistencies in evidence or intimidation practiced on the part of the defense while marijuana locks up thousands of poor black teenagers on incomprehensible sentences every single year. And it feels slimy to say this, but at least they did something. Two games out of sixteen is equivalent to a 10 game NBA suspension. That's not sufficient, but it's not nothing. I don't generally endorse giving gold stars for minimal effort, but in this case, it might actually be deserved. Especially compared to the NBA's horrendous record of response on these kinds of cases.

Boycotts are fine. They rarely work, but they're a good way to take action on moral stances and provide heft to your arguments. I rarely watch the NFL anymore, as I have trouble mentally justifying it given their laissez-faire attitude towards concussions and their former players. But if NBA fans are going to boycott the NFL for their treatment of the Rice case, they should probably start off by storming the NBA's league office in New York and demanding answers on the NBA's pitiful track record. And given the widespread love and adoration for some of these players -- Lowry, Stephenson, and Hill in particular -- many might want to rethink the way they approach fandom as a whole. It's easy to pick holes in sports you don't love, but it's much harder to honestly address very real moral failings in the sport you hold dearest. And it's even harder to come to terms with the fact that the players we hold up as totems to virtue and aesthetics are real human beings with real human flaws.

But that's part of being an adult, and it's part of being a sports fan. Games aren't always fun.

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Aaron McGuire
Editor in Chief at Gothic Ginobili
Aaron McGuire works as the lead mathematician and CTO for a small financial consulting firm in Richmond, VA. As a basketball writer, he's primarily known for Gothic Ginobili's 2012 Player Capsule series, where he wrote the equivalent of 1.5 Russian novels about every NBA player around. Nowadays, he writes a weekly column on whatever he damn well feels like.

9 thoughts on “The NBA is Worse at Criminal Justice than the NFL

  1. Mr. McGuire,
    I don't know if you read these, but if you're reading this, then thank you for spot lighting the failings of this league that we follow. You can count me among the naysayers of the NFL and it's prevailing politics. I have spouted off on my growing disinterest and disdain for its values or at least my perception of them. And I've held the nba up, as imperfect but better at least in keeping up with the times and progressive movements than the No Fun League. While Roger Goodell gobbles attention for his big stick swinging (at players at least), it seems the nba's position as it applies to it's players and domestic violence, is to sweep it under the rug and hope no one's watching.
    Here's hoping some of us "enlightened" fans don't have a short memory on this and hold our preferred league's feet to the fire until its rhetoric of standing for equality and justice is matched by meaningful action.

  2. Outstanding article, Aaron, about a topic that desperately needs to be discussed. As a female fan, it's incredibly dispiriting to see the amount of violence against women that seems to be the norm in the league.

    The worst thing we can do is try to rationalize it, ignore it, and trivialize it -- but I worry that that is, in fact, what most fans will do. It's much easier to lean on stereotypes of baller wives and baller girlfriends -- it's a "he said, she said," they must be out for the cash -- than it is to accept that your sports heroes who have brought you so much joy over the years may also be deeply flawed.

    This kind of thing fills me with so much ambivalence about being a fan. But it does help to see that other fans (however few) are willing to face facts and hold players, and league management, accountable.

  3. There is a bigger problem here than the way these men are treated.

    While lack of punishment might allow a player to feel that he might get away with something, I doubt that is in their mind at the time of these incidents (of which there are likely many more that go unreported.

    The real issue is the culture that allows men that beat their girlfriends and abandon their children to be idolized. Most of these offences involved assault against a woman and in many of them the woman failed to show up in court. Ray Rice's girlfriend married him!

    Real men love their wives and girlfriends and treat them better than they treat themselves. Real men stay involved in the kid's lives even if they don't get along with the mom. Real men earn respect by the love they show, not by brute force.

    We need to start shaming these idiots. Boycotting the league as a whole won't help, but if fans make it known that any player who acts this way (punished or not) will not sell jerseys or tickets, then the team will be forced to let them go regardless of their talent. In the case of Ray Rice, his career should be over. The Ravens should be so embarrassed and financially hurt that they would rather cut him than deal with the public backlash. But that only works if the backlash lasts more than a week.

  4. Is it really the League's responsibility though to punish players for off-court crimes that are in no way connected tod basketball?
    Kyle Lowry should have definitely received punishment by the League for throwing a ball at a ref, but other than that I am not sure the NBA is responsible for equalizing the legal system's shortcomings (though public statements incidents like these would be appropriate).

  5. Aaron, as a big fan of your work I've been troubled by this article for the last week. The ultimate sentiment of the article is vigilantism, and I think this is dangerous, despite sharing an abhorrence of the activities committed by those described.

    One of the premises of the legal system is that there are judicial institutions bound by certain deliberative criteria who decide on the guilt of an alleged offender. The rigor of this system means that there are some who walk free who probably committed crimes (though as many cases tell us, many others are falsely imprisoned), but overall that bias is an important part of a free society - actions based on hearsay are not enough to convict someone, there is an evidentiary requirement. Ironically in this case, witch-hunts (real ones) are one of the practices that have diminished because of this growth in juridical deliberation.

    The idea that an employer should use the charge of an offense as a reason to punish an employee works against that freedom of the public sphere. It basically says that an employer should be able to punish and employee as they like, regardless of the outcome of the judicial process. In almost all of the cases you list, I agree that these dudes could be seen as in some way "deserving". But I hold that the corrosion of juridical deliberation that would occur from pursuing these cases extra-legally could only have a negative impact on public life, for victims of sexual assault as well as perpetrators. The privatisation of punishment has rarely served women well.

    Personally, I also find the emphasis on punishment short-sighted. If there is a criminal system to undertake punishment and enforcement of societal codes, I would hope that employers (who routinely, and falsely, use the term "family" to describe their employees) might want to support their staff through positive interventions toward change. In all of these cases, I would prefer less pay-docking and suspensions; and more mandatory participation in anger management, offender rehabilitation, and community service for domestic violence organisations.

    The contest of "which league is punishing offenders more" is, I think, a distraction from could will really make a difference for the players and those around them.

    That said, I appreciate your forthrightness on the sexual assault issue which is routinely swept under the rug in the sports press.

  6. You left out 2 pretty big names. Jason Kidd, charged with DWI and domestic abuse (though also charging his then-wife with domestic abuse as well). Kobe Bryant was charged with rape. There are probably more if you go back further.

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