The NFL’s “Wheel of Discipline” is severely broken

Recent inconsistency has eroded trust in the league’s decision-making


Andrew Duong

Pictures of Trinity’s football field in the Multi-Sport Stadium

When the NFL season kicks off on Sunday, teams will take the field following a summer of controversy. Over the offseason, the league was busy handing out punishments with their “Wheel of Discipline.”
What is the “Wheel of Discipline,” you may ask? In the hit game show Wheel of Fortune, players spin a wheel to determine how much money they will get for solving a puzzle. In this case, the NFL’s Wheel is a cynical nickname for the league’s suspension system. Instead of determining how much money a player wins, the Wheel says how many games a player will be suspended for. After an offseason of chaos, the league has come under intense scrutiny for punishments that can be described as entirely random.

The Browns traded for former Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has been the subject of controversy since March 2021. Watson was accused of sexual harassment by over 20 women that year, all of whom were masseuses employed by Watson for private massages.

By July, the NFL had launched its investigation as ten criminal complaints were raised. Eight women had already filed a civil suit, bringing the total to 24 women. Despite an FBI investigation, Watson was cleared of criminal charges by a Harris County grand jury on March 11, 2022, paving the way for many NFL teams to request a trade for the quarterback.

Through June of this year, two more civil complaints were filed, totaling 26 alleged victims (with 24 civil complaints). Despite all this, the Browns traded five draft picks for Watson. Watson eventually reached settlements with 23 of the 24 women, though the damage was done.

Heading into the 2022 season, everyone expected that Watson would feel the league’s wrath. The NFL had punished players severely for infractions that arguably weren’t as serious. Patriots QB Tom Brady was suspended four games in 2016 for the Deflategate scandal. With 26 women filing a mixture of civil and criminal cases, Watson was expected to serve one of the lengthiest suspensions in the league’s history. Some even hoped that Watson would never see the field again. To everyone’s shock, the NFL announced on August 1, 2022, that Watson would only be suspended for six games.

In the outrage that followed, the NFL elected to appeal the decision made by Judge Sue L. Robinson, the independent disciplinary officer appointed by the NFL and its players association. While the second ruling that was handed out was more severe, it still didn’t meet the expectations of most. Watson’s suspension would nearly be doubled, from six games to 11.

Though Watson was able to get off lightly, Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley was not so lucky. After undergoing numerous mental health struggles in the 2021 season, Calvin Ridley was investigated for allegedly gambling on NFL games. Over five days in November where Ridley gambled less than $1,000, the fifth-year receiver bet on parlays which included Falcons victories. The NFL threw the book at Ridley, levying a full-season suspension. The suspension was shocking to some, but that shock would turn to outrage after the Watson suspension was announced.

Random and arbitrary suspensions for NFL players are nothing new to the sport, but they have highlighted massive flaws in the NFL’s punishment system. The league seems to assign random punishments for player infractions, with no apparent reasoning behind their actions. Furthermore, the scale of the penalties appears to be entirely random. Watson will miss only 0.45 games per woman that accused him, while Calvin Ridley will miss 3.4 games per day he gambled.

The NFL’s outrageous system of “justice” is, thankfully, an outlier. As 2022 has shown, both the NBA and MLB have displayed a zero-tolerance policy for abusers, with both leagues unleashing massive punishments on players that cross the line. NBA star Miles Bridges was accused of felony domestic violence in July 2022. While the NBA has not suspended Bridges, the charges have meant that no team has reached out to the free agent. This lack of attention from teams is a stark contrast to Watson, as many teams (including the Panthers, Falcons, Saints and more) still reached out with trade offers despite the suits in progress.

On the other hand, in April 2022, the MLB laid out one of the most extensive suspensions in sports history against Dodgers’ pitcher Trevor Bauer. The league gave him a record-breaking 324-game suspension, representing a full two seasons. For the 31-year-old pitcher, this suspension could be career-ending. Bauer’s two-year suspension is the longest in the history of the MLB’s domestic violence policy, which came into effect in 2015.

Every situation is different, and it is impossible to go into every detail of every case. Extenuating circumstances far beyond public knowledge can influence significant suspensions. However, the NFL has set a terrible precedent by allowing Watson to play in the 2022 season. For many, Watson stepping onto the field will be seen as an injustice to those 26 women. With their suspension of Bauer, the MLB has proven that they will not stand by and let a player escape the consequences of their actions regardless of their star level. If the NFL doesn’t want to fall behind, they will need to change their system — fast.