The past few years the NFL has had an obsession with its own image. Roger Goodell uses "protecting the shield" as a sort of crucifix around his neck to justify a blanket policy over all incidents that could potentially sully the reputation of this country's most popular league.
Without getting too much into the many actions Goodell himself has made that have dragged the NFL's ‘good name' through the mud, and the many areas in which he exacted arbitrary punishment, we focus in on one particular area which could do with a bit more of a human touch - the substance abuse program.
Since Tuesday when the NFL handed down the punishment to Aldon Smith in the form of a one-year suspension, many have compared it to other recent suspensions. The most popular is that of the Greg Hardy domestic violence case which had the league hand down a 10-game suspension that was later reduced to 4 games.
Directly comparing these two suspensions is outright nonsense, really. One has nothing to do with the other and the severity of the crime cannot be quantified with relation to the punishment.
Greg Hardy's situation is more about the NFL not having a specific policy in place to hand down punishment for domestic abusers. This caused Goodell to basically make things up as he went along just as he did with Ray Rice who initially received a 2-game suspension for knocking out his then fiancé until video of the incident surfaced and Goodell suspended Rice indefinitely.
The fact that the increased suspension didn't happen until everyone saw the incident with their own eyes is another instance where the league's ‘image' was more important than the actual actions committed.
Aldon Smith is a repeat offender and has been in the league's substance abuse program for some time now. He broke the terms of that program and was suspended for 9 games. He broke it again which warrants a one year suspension. Those are the rules as agreed upon in the CBA.
The issue isn't the length of the suspension. Where the issue lies is in the details surrounding the suspension. Smith is suspended for one calendar year. Over that year the team is not to have contact with him. When he needs it most, the NFL is telling Smith to get lost for a year.
Aldon Smith is an alcoholic. I use the present tense not because I think he is actively going on benders. I use it because even those who have been clean and sober for years continue refer to themselves as alcoholics. It's one way they keep themselves on the right path.
Another incredibly important part of staying clean and sober is a support system. Football players often find their support system in their teammates, coaches, and organizations. Aldon Smith found that in Oakland with the Raiders.
In the Raiders he had a couple of familiar faces in Justin Tuck and Michael Crabtree. Smith and Tuck have the same agent and the two are "good friends" as Smith put it and Crabtree - who spent the past four seasons with Smith in San Francisco -- said of Smith "we are family". Tuck was instrumental in the Raiders reaching out to sign Smith, where he found a the ideal environment to try and get his career and his life back on track.
"I'm doing really good," Smith said shortly after joining the Raiders. "I'm just excited to be here, to have this chance with this team. Be a part of a bunch of guys who work hard and an organization that looks out for their players and just a fresh start."
Some might suggest that Smith had teammates and coaches who supported him in San Francisco and yet that didn't stop him before. That is at least partially true as he was well-liked by those in the 49ers organization which is one of the reasons they gave him such a long leash (that and because he is an incredible football talent).
But remember Aldon Smith was just 25 years of age when he had his most recent incident that had the 49ers finally give up on him and cut him. Everyone comes to a crossroads in their life. At the age of 25, Smith reached that crossroads and it appears thus far that he has chosen to turn his life around.
It many ways, as an organization, the 49ers had unintentionally become enablers for Smith's alcoholism. Then in one offseason, Smith watched nearly all of his teammates and coaches up and leave him. It can be devastating to watch all of your teammates and coaches who you had become so close to over four years of your young adult life do a mass exodus. And when one is already prone to turning to alcohol, such a thing can easily drive a person to drink. And at that point who is there to stop you from diving back into a bottle? Who is there to talk you out of it? Who is there to care?
"I had lost my love for the game and it led me to some poor choices," said Smith in a statement. "But I am thankful to the Raider organization for believing in me this season and will continue to better myself and grow from my experiences. I look forward to rejoining the team next year."
Teams spend a lot of time together. They become a close-knit group that is akin to a family. Aldon Smith needs that family now more than ever. But Roger Goodell and the NFL thinks it best to rip that away.
"Obviously, as an organization, we're going to do everything we can to support him," Jack Del Rio said of Aldon Smith. "That obviously is... There's not a whole lot you can do when you're basically told that you can't have contact, he can't be part of the team, but we'll make sure that the people that can help, that hopefully we can ensure that that is being done properly for the benefit of the young man."
The solution here is not to change the length of the suspension. That would in essence treat alcohol abuse and driving while intoxicated as somehow less severe to that of other transgressions. Alcohol is very dangerous when it is abused and driving under the influence often has deadly results so it is therefore not to be taken lightly. The solution is details of the suspension.
Cutting off all access and communication between the suspended player and the organization threatens to do more harm than good. Aldon Smith needs his teammates and coaches now more than ever. And they want to help. Allowing that interaction would go a long way with regard to the player's health and well-being. And a residual is the image boost the league could get from showing they actually care about people even while they're not able to actively suit up and represent the league on the football field.
That's a win-win-win.