Why did NFL suspend KC Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay 4 games


Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay Jr. posted on social media last month that he was struggling with his mental health. Gay offered no specifics in the tweet at the time, but he spoke about it Saturday.

AP file photo

The NFL suspended Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay four games Monday, and it’s not simply because he broke a vacuum cleaner.

Well, probably not.

No way, right?

We’re left to make assumptions — left to read between the lines, some of them common sense, some of them more like solving a Rubik’s cube — because that’s the way the NFL prefers it. They are operating under a cloak of secrecy as to how they arrived at their final decision of a four-game ban without pay, clutching dear to their guidelines as though it’s a playbook.

Truth be told, the public perception is they’re operating without a playbook at all, and instead with what feels right in that particular moment. Which, right or wrong, is a narrative that derives from their own actions. A lack of transparency around their own actions.

Gay was charged in January with criminal damage to property totaling less than $1,000 during an altercation with his ex-partner, who is the mother of his child. In June, he agreed to undergo mental health counseling as part of a diversion agreement.

It’s that incident, which amounted to originally a misdemeanor charge and then the diversion agreement, that prompted the NFL’s four-game suspension, The Star learned.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense on the surface, given the league’s leniency toward more serious charges, but that’s all we have — the surface. This case brings together a collaboration of departments who dress their records in camouflage, which leaves us to claw between the weeds and beneath the surface.

If there’s any intent by the league or anyone else involved to send a message here, the one received is one of confusion.

The result is a false narrative that runs wild in public circles, which in some cases includes the media. The responsible parties shrug their shoulders as though they don’t care.

Eight months ago, The Star attempted to retrieve the basic circumstances of Gay’s arrest from the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office. We were trying to clarify an important detail: Did the altercation include any accusations of violence? If not, well, the district attorney’s office should say so, as to not tarnish a man’s reputation. But if the altercation did include accusations of violence, well, the public certainly deserved to know that, too.

The district attorney’s office refused to clarify, even though those details were to be released the following day. That secrecy left people to form their own opinions over 24 hours, and I don’t have to tell you that in the day of social media, eventually opinions transform to assumed facts that not even the delayed release of the truth is powerful enough to overturn. By then it’s typically too late. The first impression matters.

As it turns out, Gay’s ex-partner accused him of more than busting a vacuum cleaner. She alleged he pushed her onto a couch, where she said their 3-month old baby slept, an allegation that Gay’s attorney denied. It’s likely the NFL’s investigation, which runs separately from law enforcement and often after the completion of one by law enforcement, took that into account. Maybe. Perhaps.

It’s common sense, not the league, that tells us there’s something more than property damage that would lead to four games, but what was it exactly? It’s possible they uncovered the same evidence as law enforcement but, without the burden of proving a charge beyond a reasonable doubt, acted more harshly. It’s too possible they discovered more.

We cannot know, because the NFL only shares its summary of the evidence with the parties involved. And, most glaringly, they conceal the process for how that evidence drives their final disciplinary decisions.

Shouldn’t the message be part of the reason for the suspension? Wouldn’t the message be stronger if the process acquired some semblance of transparency?

The commissioner discipline policy in the collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players states the reason for discipline is “conduct detrimental to the integrity or, of public confidence in, the game of professional football.” The attempt is to send a public message that the game is worthy of preserving — or to refute any action that would suggest otherwise.

The league’s message here has an audience of one.

The system lacks uniformity — even the timeline in Gay’s suspension is confusing, with discipline coming eight months after the incident. That’s a gripe shared by those who have been directly involved in the process and those standing on the outside.

The secrecy protects the parties involved — namely, the most powerful sports league in the world and a man that particular league just deemed worthy of a four-game suspension without pay — all while neglecting those whose support finances the league, as well as any confidence in the system.

They’re banking on you forgetting all about it, and heck, they’re probably right.

But for the next four weeks, as the Chiefs travel to Indianapolis and Tampa Bay before returning home to face the Raiders and Bills, we’ll have a reminder.

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Sam McDowell is a sports columnist for The Star. He has previously covered the Chiefs, Royals, Sporting Kansas City and sports enterprise.

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