The James Saxon case shows that public relations 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 administering the Personal Conduct Policy. She didn’t realize that public opinion drives all politics.

The policy exists as a mechanism to empower the league to take action against players and others who get into trouble while away from work. For most employers, off-duty behavior is none of the employer’s business. But the NFL has made such issues its concern, because the public expects action to be taken against those who potentially squander the “privilege” of being associated with The Shield by getting into trouble when they don’t operate under their auspices.

Still, the Personal Conduct Policy involves a public relations balancing act for the league. It’s one thing to act when a situation off the field has been widely 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 thus turning a non-story into a story, or letting the sleeping dogs lie.

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

This timeline caused many to infer that Saxon had not told the Cardinals about the situation or that the Cardinals had not told the league. That is not the case; As coach Kliff Kingsbury told reporters Friday, the team knew about the arrest when it happened, and the team reported it to the league at the time.

The league, according to the team, did not recommend administrative leave until today, after the report surfaced.

The implication is obvious. The league did not want to create a story out of the Saxon arrest when no such story existed. Had he been placed on administrative leave at that point, someone would have asked, “Hey, where’s Coach Saxon?” By deliberately waiting, no one knew. Which saved the league from having to deal with a negative story about a coach accused of domestic assault.

There is a certain amount of hypocrisy in the league’s decision not to take action until it is necessary. The NFL will discipline employees and teams that fail to report incidents promptly. But the NFL will reserve the right to hide such incidents from the public if they are not widely known. Then, once someone reports the problem, the league will do what it should have already done, but didn’t want to do because it preferred that no one knew about the arrest.

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