Boxing gloves or kid gloves?
Over here, James Harrison, linebacker, Pro Bowler, fearsome pass rusher for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Harrison is also a candid, unrepentant, up-yours kind of guy. He referred to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as a "puppet'' and "the devil'' in a recent magazine story.
Across the way, Cedric Benson, quiet, thoughtful running back, twice a 1,000-yard rusher for the Bengals, a bright light on a dim NFL team in Cincinnati. Benson has also been arrested four times in three years and is currently in the Travis County Jai in Austin, Texas, after pleading no contest to a 2010 assault charge.
Which player gets the kid gloves from the NFL, and which endures the standing-eight?
It's a rhetorical question to most who follow the league and the arbitrary discipline handed down by commissioner Roger Goodell. Yet it speaks to a problem that isn't going away.
Last fall, Goodell fined Harrison more than $100,000 for on-field hits deemed unsafe. The commissioner docked him $75,000 for two hits in one game, against Cleveland wideouts Josh Cribbs and Mohammed Massaquoi. Neither hit drew a penalty. A few months earlier, Goodell had met with Benson to discuss the assault charge for which Benson is now doing time. Goodell decided not to fine or suspend the Bengals running back.
There could be some inconsistency here.
Harrison is a difficult case. Benson is grateful for his second chance in Cincinnati following three disastrous years in Chicago. After running for 150 yards in a December win over Cleveland last year, Benson stood in front of his locker and wept in gratitude for the second chance he'd been given in Cincinnati. Rocks would talk before James Harrison wept openly in front of the media.
But are Harrison's misdeeds more heinous than Benson's?
You could argue they're less so. Harrison's indiscretions occurred within the context of Sunday afternoon combat, in a league where violence is assumed. Benson's happened far away from the game. Since 2008, Benson has been arrested four times in his hometown of Austin, twice on alcohol-related charges and twice for assault.
Why is Harrison punished by Goodell and Benson is not?
Is Goodell's no-nonsense authoritarianism encouraging, arbitrary or merely a necessary component of doing business?
It's easy to say that Goodell was more forceful with Harrison because Harrison's misdeeds occurred on the field. Let the criminal justice system deal with Benson. That doesn't explain other fines and suspensions, most notably those involving Adam Jones and the late Chris Henry.
Goodell released the following statement after suspending Jones for the 2007 season for his involvement in a strip-club melee:
"We must protect the integrity of the NFL. The highest standards of conduct must be met by everyone in the NFL because it is a privilege to represent the NFL, not a right. These players, and all members of our league, have to make the right choices and decisions in their conduct on a consistent basis."
In a letter to Jones and Henry, Goodell wrote: "Your conduct has brought embarrassment and ridicule upon yourself, your club, and the NFL, and has damaged the reputation of players throughout the league.''
On the embarrassment and ridicule scale, where should Harrison fall? Benson?
The NFL dances the hypocrisy tango on this issue. It asks its players once a week to behave like barbarians. The rest of the time, it expects those barbarians to act like the rest of us. Only, they're not like the rest of us. That's a reason we watch them.
That's not the league's only dance with hypocrisy. It decries fan violence, yet does nothing to eliminate the beer sales that fuel the rage. Beer = violence = bad publicity is not a stout enough equation for the NFL to mess with the lucrative relationship it enjoys with its beer sponsors.
Since Goodell can't serve up two-game suspensions to brawling, gun-toting fans, the league's best option would be to ban beer sales at its stadiums, and to prohibit alcohol in its stadium parking lots. Subsequently, the Mississippi River will reverse direction and bacon will become a healthy snack.
But we digress.
Goodell has an obligation to protect the image and reputation of his league, same as any business, because image is money. Unless you work for yourself, you are probably subject to a personal conduct policy. It might be spelled out in a manual, it might be agreed to in a contract. You are made aware of it.
Most companies aren't as arbitrary about it as the NFL is. Players need guidelines. They need to know the rules will be applied fairly, across the board, no matter who the offending player might be. Players need to know what to expect. On and off the field.
Just because James Harrison has a personality that could freeze a meat locker doesn't mean he should be judged more harshly than Cedric Benson, or any other player.
I wanted to ask Benson about this Wednesday, but I couldn't. He was in jail. Harrison, meanwhile, was at practice. Where he was supposed to be.