Ravens running back Ray Rice is sitting out two games for domestic violence. A positive marijuana test, meanwhile, triggered a year-long ban for Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon.
Critics of the NFL's arbitrary policy toward domestic violence point to the contrast between the punishments and say it's time for the league to crack down on players who hurt women.
Three members of Congress wrote NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asking him to reconsider Rice's suspension, the Governor of Maine says he'll boycott the league and numerous groups that advocate for women and families condemned the penalty as too lenient.
League officials may soon take action on the matter. A person familiar with the NFL's plans says the league is looking into increasing punishments for players involved in domestic violence. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because no announcement had been made on such a decision.
"The first time with marijuana is different from the first time you are knocking your wife unconscious," said Judy Harris Kluger, executive director of Sanctuary for Families and a former judge in New York. "[It was] such a small sort of slap on the wrist … They should have suspended for a season at least and let him appeal. At least you send a message that this is not tolerated, that this matters."
Rice's suspension begins Saturday, a punishment handed down after grainy video showed him dragging his unconscious then-fiancée off a casino elevator on Feb. 15. He has not divulged what happened in the elevator except to call his actions "totally inexcusable."
His assault charges could be expunged once he completes a diversion program. So the NFL gave him the only punishment he likely faces in a suspension and a fine that totals more than $500,000 (U.S.).
"My daughter is two years old now. One day she's going to know the power of Google. Me having to explain that to her, what happened that night, that's something I have to live with the rest of my life," Rice said at training camp.
By comparison, Washington safety Brandon Meriweather was handed a two-game suspension for a hit during an exhibition game for a sixth violation of player-safety rules. Broncos kicker Matt Prater has been suspended four games for violating terms of the league's alcohol program as a repeat offender. Gordon was suspended for two games last season, and will now miss the entire 2014 season for violating the substance abuse policy at least a third time.
The NFL has guidelines bargained with the NFL Players Association setting out penalties for using illegal and performance-enhancing drugs. Domestic violence, covered under personal conduct, has been left to the discretion of the commissioner.
The NFL's personal code of conduct makes it clear that domestic violence will not be tolerated, Kluger says. But she says the league didn't follow that code in punishing Rice.
"It boggles the mind that they did not act in a way that … sent a message that this is more serious," said Kluger, who helped oversee New York putting in courts that deal specifically with domestic violence.
This is not a new issue for the NFL. Since January, 2000, 77 players have been involved in 85 domestic violence incidents, with six players being cut by their teams, according to USA Today's NFL Arrests Database. The NFL suspended six players for one game each, and Rice now is the second player to be suspended for two games.
Goodell has defended the Rice suspension, saying the league can't just "make up the discipline" and needs to be consistent. He also said Rice took responsibility and had not been in trouble before.
U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin sent a letter to Goodell and Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome decrying Rice's punishment and suggesting the Ravens also discipline the running back.
"The decision to suspend Mr. Rice for a mere two games sends the inescapable message that the NFL does not take domestic- or intimate-partner violence with the seriousness they deserve," the letter said.
The NFL has yet to punish Carolina Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who is awaiting a jury trial on his conviction for attacking his ex-girlfriend in his apartment in May. A judge gave him a 60-day suspended jail sentence and 18 months' probation, which he is appealing.
What the NFL does next is being watched closely, according to a consultant who helps train police, lawyers and judges on domestic violence.
"I hope they reflect and self-assess themselves and come out and say, 'We want to be the national standard for how we feel about violence against women,'" said Mark Wynn, a former Nashville police lieutenant working to prevent violence against women for 30 years.
Goodell emphasized Rice's punishment was for a first offence. Wynn says a crisis-line director told him victims don't usually call for help until the fifth incident.
"The stronger voice of the NFL about this that we have no tolerance for violence against women, no tolerance of coercion, no tolerance of objectifying women, that to me would be a real pivotal moment for professional sports where they say enough is enough," Wynn said.