For Haynesworth, suspension isn’t enough

$40,391. Apparently that sum isn’t enough to buy a few hours of good behavior each week. That’s Albert Haynesworth’s per-game salary for 2006.
Haynesworth, a fifth-year defensive tackle for the Tennessee Titans, inexplicably stepped on Dallas Cowboy Andre Gurode — specifically on Gurode’s head after Haynesworth had already kicked his helmet off — last Sunday after a Cowboy touchdown. Gurode required multiple stitches for cuts on his face.

Haynesworth attempted to apologize after the game, saying, “What I did out there was disgusting. It doesn’t matter what the league does to me.”
The league should take him up on his apparent offer. The game’s referee had already ejected Haynesworth, but the real penalty came last Monday when the NFL suspended Haynesworth for five games without pay — the longest ever for an in-game incident.

It started a buzz on both sides. Some commentators claim that the league’s actions are arbitrary, targeting Haynesworth over other players involved in
criminal activity over the past few months that the league has been reluctant to deal with. Others note that five games isn’t sufficient punishment for such a dangerous attack.

Haynesworth’s outburst is not unprecedented. In college he left practice after an argument with tackle Will Ofenheusle only to return with a pole and intent to attack his teammate. The University of Tennessee coach fortunately stopped Haynesworth before he attacked the other player.
In 2003, Haynesworth kicked another teammate during a Titans practice. And in May, charges of road rage were dropped in one Tennessee county and dismissed for want of jurisdiction in another. After all that, one starts to wonder how sincere his “disgust” with himself could really be.

Any suspension is certainly a welcome sight for those who think professional athletes should be role models as part of the unwritten contract with fans that really earns them the big bucks. Even a quasi-violent event like professional football demands some civility from its rather well-paid players.
But the punishment is hardly proportional to the offense. Let’s get a few things straight about Haynesworth: His actions potentially constitute both a crime and a tort.

The state of Tennessee penalizes assault with a deadly weapon — Haynesworth was wearing metal cleats because of the grass field at Tennessee’s LP Field — as aggravated assault. It’s a felony that could put him in prison for three to six years.

The tort may end up being more interesting legally. In 1973, Denver Bronco Charles Clark struck a blow to the back of Cincinnati Bengal Dale Hackbart’s head. The ensuing lawsuit set a precedent: that the “battlefield” conditions of football constitute no implied consent for such egregious behavior. Basically, as long as the NFL prohibits intentionally stepping on opposing players’ heads — it did the last time I checked — Haynesworth cannot hide behind football’s inherently dangerous nature.

The state puts aggravated assailants behind bars for years; it lets the injured recover monetarily to compensate them for their losses. The NFL, on the other hand, gives a five-week vacation to a man who might still otherwise make almost half a million dollars this year from its coffers.

If the league is waiting for a better player to make an example of, they may have some time to wait. Unlike other NFL player incidents, from substance abuse to the bizarre Minnesota Vikings sex cruise incident, this one happened during a game. It defamed the NFL’s core product. And it happened in front of hundreds of thousands of fans.

The only parallel event in recent memory is the 2004 brawl between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers basketball teams, arguably worse because of the inclusion of several unfortunately intrepid Detroit fans. The result? Criminal assault charges for five Pacers players and an 86-game suspension for Ron Artest, the worst of the offenders — the remainder of the year and the longest suspension for an on-court incident in that league’s history. Despite involving fans, those events were at least partially provoked and yet Artest was out for the season.

The National Football League — and indeed also the Players’ Association — is missing a key opportunity to put its foot down and state in no uncertain terms “This type of person is not welcome in our organization.” Instead, their interests in preserving the integrity of the game and in physically protecting their players on the field fall by the wayside with a mere month-long suspension.

Titans’ head coach Jeff Fisher has intimated that Haynesworth may not be welcome back even after his league-mandated suspension has run. Management would be wise to listen.