We live in a world where professional sports leagues are conservative institutions. When an athlete breaks the law, the league tries to avoid making a statement with their response. Michael Vick, Donald Sterling, and post-video Ray Rice are exceptions. Leniency—what we saw in the initial response to Rice’s behavior—tends to guide the treatment of offenders.
Explanations for weak punishments can range from incompetence to money, but there is also a psychological explanation. The way people seek justice and the way players earn forgiveness are not necessarily congruent with harsh punishments.
Research by Michael Wenzel of Flinders University in Australia has illuminated the difference between two conceptions of justice. Retributive justice involves the unilateral imposition of punishment. Justice is served because the person gets what was coming. Restorative justice, on the other hand, focuses on “achieving a renewed consensus between the affected parties.” It can involve an apology, a dialogue, or anything that re-establishes that the offender adheres to the shared values that were violated.
The urge to see offending athletes get what they deserve doesn’t necessarily lead to harsh punishments because athletic suspensions and fines on the wealthy are inherently ambiguous.
Two of Wenzel’s findings are relevant to punishments handed down by professional sports leagues. In a 2010 study, Wenzel found that people tend to seek restorative justice rather than retributive justice when they perceive a shared identity with the offender. In the sense that National Football League fans, employees, and players share the “NFL family” identity, the finding suggests that they’ll focus on an offender’s remorse and personal growth, not on a harsh punishment.
In a 2013 study, Wenzel examined how each notion of justice was related to forgiveness. When an athlete commits an offense, professional sports leagues aim to return to the pre-offense status quo, and this usually happens when a player is forgiven. Wenzel found that restorative but not retributive responses led to greater forgiveness. Taken together, Wenzel’s studies suggest that the offender’s behavior and not his punishment will become the focus.
That’s not to say that there’s no incentive to punish offending players. Some symbolic punishment is likely necessary as part of the process of restorative justice. There is also a body of research demonstrating the importance of punishment in the context of “just deserts”—the notion that people have gotten what they deserved. In a 2013 study, Peter Strelan of the University of Adelaide looked at the connection between just deserts punishment and forgiveness. One might think that punishment is similar to revenge, and therefore would be antithetical to forgiveness. But Strelan found the opposite: a just deserts punishment facilitated forgiveness.
Research (PDF) by Kevin Carlsmith also highlights the importance of just deserts punishment. Carlsmith found that although people cite both just deserts and deterrence as key factors in determining punishment severity, when it comes to actually doling out punishment, participants are driven strictly by just deserts motives.
The urge to see offending athletes get what they deserve doesn’t necessarily lead to harsh punishments, however, because athletic suspensions and fines on the wealthy are inherently ambiguous. You can’t determine whether somebody got their just deserts if you can’t make sense of the units of punishment. People may have some idea of whether a certain amount of jail time fits the crime, or how a $500 fine affects a middle-class family, but what does a two-game suspension really mean? It’s beyond the scope of a normal water cooler discussion.
Recently there's been pushback against the seemingly light punishment for Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, for example. Irsay was suspended for six games and fined $500,000 for operating a vehicle while intoxicated. The punishment is objectively lenient in the sense that it doesn’t seem to inconvenience Irsay at all (i.e. it’s not a deterrent), but there’s no comparable situation that provides context for the penalty. How can a regular person understand what it means for a billionaire to pay a six-figure fine and be forced spend six weeks “away” from a team he owns?
The result is that in the absence of a major social outcry—as in the cases of Vick and Sterling—nearly any punishment can be interpreted as a just deserts outcome. This should be particularly true in cases where punishments seem somewhat similar to those handed down in the past. One light punishment can beget another light punishment, and until something jumps out as ridiculously lenient, it can seem as though everybody is getting their just deserts.
None of this is meant to downplay the major roles that money, politics, and fandom play in the culture of leniency. But the research suggests that, independent of these factors, norms regarding the punishment for professional athletes are likely to tilt in the direction of compassion.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if a growing public eye and the increasing role of professional sports in American culture leads to more change. As sports weave their way deeper into society, social pressure will build for professional leagues to serve as an exemplar. Instead of seeking some minimal feeling of justice that allows a return to the status quo and guilt-free fandom, we will want the judicial actions of pro sports leagues to reflect the society we hope to have. The National Basketball Association understood this when it came to Sterling. The NFL learned it far too late.