James Saxon case proves that P.R. drives the Personal Conduct Policy


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On Monday, Judge Sue L. Robinson accused the NFL of reacting too strongly to public opinion in the administration of the Personal Conduct Policy. She failed to realize that public opinion drives the entire policy.

The policy exists as a mechanism for empowering the league to take action against players and others who get in trouble while away from work. For most employers, off-duty behavior isn’t the employer’s concern. But the NFL has made such issues its concern, because the public expects that action will be taken against those who potentially squander the “privilege” of being associated with The Shield by getting in trouble when not operating under its auspices.

Still, the Personal Conduct Policy entails a bit of a P.R. balancing act for the league. It’s one thing to act when an off-field situation has been heavily covered, discussed, and scrutinized, like the Deshaun Watson case. When someone gets in trouble and the media doesn’t notice, the league has to choose between acting — and therefore making a non-story into a story — or letting sleeping dogs lie.

A perfect example of this dynamic comes from the NFL’s handling of Cardinals running backs coach James Saxon. On Friday, it was reported for the first time that he was arrested in May on domestic battery charges. After the report emerged, the Cardinals places Saxon on paid administrative leave, at the recommendation of the league.

This timeline caused many to infer that either Saxon hadn’t told the Cardinals about the situation or the Cardinals hadn’t told the league. That’s not the case; as coach Kliff Kingsbury told reporters on Friday, the team knew about the arrest when it happened, and the team reported it to the league at that time.

The league, per the team, didn’t recommend administrative leave until today, after the report emerged.

The implication is obvious. The league didn’t want to create a story out of the Saxon arrest when no such story existed. If he’d been placed on administrative leave at the time, someone would have asked, “Hey, where’s Coach Saxon?” By deliberately waiting, no one knew. Which kept the league from having to deal with a negative story about a coach being charged with domestic battery.

There’s a certain amount of hypocrisy in the league’s decision to take no action until it has to. The NFL will discipline employees and teams who fail to report incidents immediately. But the NFL will reserve the right to hide such incidents from the public, if they’re otherwise not generally known. Then, once someone reports on the issue, the league will do what it should have already done — but what it didn’t want to do because it preferred having no one know about the arrest.