NFL Suspends Player for Violent Helmet Swing Towards an Opposing Player

Between the whistles of play, professional football is an arguably violent game. Players often put their hearts and souls into their on the field performances for the benefit of their teams. As a result, emotions can often run high.

But what about when the whistle is blown and the play is stopped? Like in boxing when the bell rings and the fighters go back to their corners, the protocol in football is for the players to pick themselves up and go back to the huddle to prepare for the next play. Players are expected to adhere to this protocol in compliance with the rules of the game set out by professional football’s governing body, the National Football League (NFL).

During a recent preseason game, Antonio Smith, defensive end for the Houston Texans, fell outside the lines of these rules in a post play incident during which he forcefully removed an opposing player’s helmet and appeared to violently swing the helmet at him.

The NFL has reviewed the incident and has decided to suspend Smith for three games, including the Texans’ first regular season game. In acknowledging the incident, Smith apologized to his team and fans saying, “The bottom line is that the [NFL] handed down the suspension and that hurts my team.”

Professional sport franchises are employers. Their employees, however, due to their status as high-profile athletes, are often public figures in the media spotlight. While all employees’ actions have an impact on their employers, the actions of these high-profile athlete-employees have an especially large impact. An employee’s bad judgment can leave a long-standing negative effect on his or her employer.

Employers have a legal obligation to deal with their employees’ inappropriate conduct. Similarly, employees have an obligation to follow workplace rules and utilize good judgment in doing so. In the high-profile world of professional sports, the exercise of poor judgment by a professional athlete-employee can result in a wide range of penalties, from suspensions similar to that imposed on Smith to civil (or even criminal) liability in a situation in which a violent outburst results in grave physical harm to the opposing player.

Private employers now commonly provide avoidance training to employees on workplace issues such as harassment, discrimination, and the use of good judgment. Professional sport franchises could equally benefit from the use of such training for their employee-players and coaches. Given that stories of athletes and coaches behaving badly are often spread quickly and broadly through social media, professional sport franchises looking to preserve their brand have a pressing need for this type of training.