The NFL has suspended New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. for one game in response to his alleged “unnecessary roughness” during the Giants’ loss on Sunday to the Carolina Panthers. Beckham will file an expedited appeal and try to get back on the field for the Giants’ upcoming game against the Minnesota Vikings. Although the Giants are 6–8, they are only 1 game back of the 7–7 Washington Redskins for first place in the NFC East. Beckham, who has 91 catches for 1,396 yards, is arguably the Giants' best player and his availability for Sunday’s game will be a crucial factor in the Giants’ fleeting playoff chances.
Beckham’s conduct during the Panthers game has been the source of much debate on Monday. Beckham and Panthers cornerback Josh Norman trash-talked throughout most of the game, and also exchanged periodic pushes, shoves and elbows. The “lowlight” of their ongoing quarrel occurred in the third quarter when Beckham delivered a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on Norman. Thankfully, Norman wasn’t injured—at least not visibly—on the play. The now infamous hit occurred on the same play where Norman had reached or slapped at Beckham’s head from behind, a move that may have angered Beckham and caused him to seek retaliation. In its statement explaining Beckham’s suspension, the NFL describes the incident as “a late helmet-to-helmet hit against a defenseless player in which Beckham left his feet prior to contact to spring forward and upward into his opponent, lowered his helmet and initiated forcible contact with his helmet, and forcibly struck the defenseless player’s head.”
Despite the NFL’s unsettling portrayal of the helmet-on-helmet hit, and despite Beckham and Norman’s constant skirmishing earlier in the game, referee Terry McAulay declined to throw either player out. Instead, the referees assessed three penalties to Beckham and two to Norman. Under NFL rules, only the referees assigned to each game have the discretion to expel a player, meaning officials from league headquarters cannot intervene and order that a player be removed. Particularly in light of the ongoing head injury legal controversy in the NFL and in light of the movie Concussion set for release on Christmas Day, Beckham’s helmet-to-helmet hit on Norman could not have come at a worse time for the league.
Beckham’s right to appeal
Beckham will seek an expedited appeal. He will likely receive both a hearing and a decision before this weekend. The NFL’s system for players to challenge punishments for on-field misconduct is very different from the system used to regulate players’ off-field misconduct. Whereas off-field matters are governed by the controversial “Personal Conduct Policy” and the collective bargaining agreement’s Article 46—which, collectively, empower NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to (1) determine whether off-field misconduct is detrimental to the league; (2) determine an appropriate punishment for sufficiently damaging conduct and (3) hear any appeals—on-field matters do not directly involve Goodell. Instead, two of Goodell’s employees, NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent and NFL vice president of football operations Merton Hanks, assess whether on-field conduct warrants a punishment. Further, a player’s appeal of an on-field punishment is heard by one of two appeals officers who have been jointly appointed by the NFL and NFLPA and are also paid by both entities. The two appeal officers for the 2015 season are retired NFL linebacker Derrick Brooks and retired NFL wide receiver James Thrash. The decision by the appeal officer is final. In sum, the appeals process for on-field punishments is more of a collaborative venture between the league and players than is the process for off-field punishments.
Arguments likely to be raised by Beckham and his attorneys on appeal
The following sketches some of the arguments that Beckham and his attorneys are likely to try during the appeal hearing.
(1.) Roughness is “part of the game”
First, Beckham will contend that while he and Norman sparred for most of the game, periodic elbows and shoves exchanged between a wide receiver and the cornerback covering him are “part of the game” and have never before warranted a suspension. Along those lines, Beckham will argue that if “unnecessary roughness”—a catch-all term cited by the NFL in suspending Beckham—should justify a suspension, then Norman and perhaps many other NFL players should be suspended as well.
(2.) No intent to injure
Intent is an important factor in Beckham’s appeal. In 2014, Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh successfully appealed his one-game suspension for stepping on the ankle of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in part by stressing that he did not intend to injure Rodgers. While Suh was still fined for the incident, the elimination of the suspension allowed him to play in a playoffs game against the Dallas Cowboys.
With that in mind, Beckham will argue that he did not intentionally collide with the helmet of Norman and did not seek to injure Norman. While to many the video suggests otherwise, Beckham might contend that the collision happened spontaneously as he was executing a play. In that vein, Beckham can freely admit that Norman had done a frustratingly effective job covering him—Beckham had no catches in the first half—but also insist that he did not seek to escalate the tension into a dangerous helmet-on-helmet hit.
Beckham might further add that a helmet-on-helmet hit endangers the neurological and spinal cord health of both the player being hit and the player doing the hitting. This risk would make it less likely that Beckham would try to collide with Norman’s helmet.
(3) The incident occurred during a play, not after a play
Third, Beckham will attempt to distinguish the helmet-on-helmet incident with an eye-poking incident that occurred earlier this season involving Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib and Indianapolis Colts tight end Dwayne Allen. After a play ended, Talib poked Allen in his eye, which caused Allen to suffer temporary vision problems. The NFL suspended Talib for one game on grounds that he intentionally placed Allen at risk of serious eye injury, and Talib lost his appeal. In contrast, Beckham can note that his incident occurred when or immediately before the whistle was blown and also that Norman appears uninjured.
(4) No notice that a wide receiver can receive a suspension for a first-time helmet-on-helmet hit
Fourth, Beckham can point out there have only been a handful of NFL players suspended for a first time infraction of a helmet-on-helmet hit and that Beckham would appear be the first offensive player in NFL history suspended for a helmet-on-helmet hit. He would use those points to assert he lacked adequate notice that he would face a suspension for a helmet-on-helmet hit.
Beckham will likely highlight that the most recent player suspended for a helmet-on-helmet hit was in 2013, when Washington Redskins safety Brandon Meriweather received a two-game suspension (later reduced to one-game) for repeat helmet-to-helmet hits. Unlike Meriweather, Beckham has no history of helmet-on-helmet hits. Beckham could also point to the NFL’s suspension of Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Dashon Goldson for a helmet-on-helmet hit on New York Jets tight end Jeff Cumberland in 2013. Goldson’s punishment was premised partly on Goldson having an unobstructed path and choosing to lower his head to slam into Cumberland. Beckham, in contrast, might argue several Panthers players in front of him and thus he lacked an unobstructed path. Such a defense may fail, however, given the NFL’s conclusion that Beckham, “with a 10-yard running start, had an unobstructed path to his opponent, the position of the opponent was not impacted by any other player, and the contact with the head/neck was avoidable.”
(5.) He’s never been suspended
Beckham’s weakest argument would be that he has never been suspended before, and that a helmet-on-helmet collision should not mark the first time he is suspended. This is an especially unpersuasive argument given that the NFL has fined Beckham in the past for in-game misconduct—including this past October, when the NFL levied an $8,681 fine onto Beckham for punching the helmet of Buffalo Bills safety Duke Williams. The fact that Beckham “has a record” with the NFL provides the league with greater justification to punish him for failing to learn from his mistakes.
(6.) Blame the refs
Lastly, Beckham can stress that if his conduct was so endangering to other players, why wasn’t he tossed from the game? Here, Beckham can use the referees’ apparent “let’em play” philosophy against the NFL. He’ll stress that if anyone deserves punishment for what occurred during the game, it should be the referees, who are hired and trained by the same league office that is punishment Beckham.
To be clear, none of these arguments may work for Beckham, especially given that the video reflects poorly on him. But they indicate the kind of reasoning that might help Beckham wage an appeal. If Beckham loses his appeal, he will (as noted by sports accountant Robert Raiola on Twitter) forfeit $52,530 in wages.
SI.com will keep you posted on further developments in Beckham’s appeal.
Michael McCann is a legal analyst and writer for Sports Illustrated. He is also a Massachusetts attorney and the founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. He teaches an undergraduate course at UNH titled “Deflategate.” McCann is also the distinguished visiting Hall of Fame Professor of Law at Mississippi College School of Law and he teaches “Intellectual Property Law in Sports” in the Oregon Law Sports Law Institute.