Ravens Penalties Reflect NFL’s Belief Rule Violation Was No Accident

Earlier this month, the Baltimore Ravens were ‘made aware’ of the fact that they were in violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement by having their rookie and first-year players don pads during the team’s rookie minicamp until they were ‘informed’ otherwise by their NFLPA representative, tight end Benjamin Watson.

Last week, we learned that the NFL was investigating the incident. Yesterday, we learned that the league issued the Ravens penalties, including a forfeiture of their three OTA periods scheduled for this week, in addition to fining the organization $343,057 and head coach John Harbaugh $137,223. The penalty was handed down the same day the Ravens brought in Ray Rice to speak to their rookie class.

The Ravens responded in seemingly conciliatory fashion, issuing a statement that read simply, “We made a mistake and we are sorry for that. We accept the NFL discipline”. Harbaugh spoke after practice saying that the penalty was on him, that, “it was my decision, my effort”.

What they did not clarify is that the mistake was not ignorance of the rules, but rather the assumption that they would be able to circumvent the rules without being penalized for it. That is certainly the league’s interpretation, as reflected in the fact that they chose to issue the organization the full breadth of punishment available to them under the circumstance with the belief in mind that the rule violation was willful.

As Pro Football Talk points out, a section in the CBA pertaining to these practice rules and the discipline for violating them gives the commissioner the authority, in working with the NFLPA, “to reduce the fines if the conduct of the coach resulted from a ‘good faith’ interpretation of the rules…or that the violation did not result in a material violation of the rules”.

This is an important point because it was the narrative that the Ravens chose to go with when it was first revealed that the NFL would be investigation the rookie minicamp rule violation, claiming ignorance, in spite of the fact that Harbaugh has been the head coach of the Ravens since beyond 2011, when the most recent CBA was agreed to. The Ravens were also penalized in 2010 for the intensity of their spring workouts in violation of the previous CBA rules.

It is possible, though not certain, that that half-decade-old previous infraction could have weighed in the decision to extend the organization the maximum fine allowed, but it seems clear that the impetus behind the significance of the fine rests primarily on the fact that the league did not accept the Ravens’ claim that the rule violation occurred, in the parlance of the rules, “from a ‘good faith’ interpretation”.

Of course, in the long run, this should ultimately boil down to a slap on the wrist and not much more. The Ravens were docked three spring workouts and in total were penalized under half a million dollars, which is about the equivalent of a rookie minimum salary, and is irrelevant to the salary cap. A second, similar violation this offseason, as unlikely as that would seem, could result in the forfeiture of draft picks.

Still, it’s all somewhat ironic given Harbaugh’s penchant to have a quick trigger with regards to the faults of others. He has repeatedly, including recently, in the presence of Mike Tomlin, invoked the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach’s sideline incident during a kick return a few years ago. Tomlin was disciplined for his action, or inaction, and moved on. I don’t suspect that he will repeatedly toss barbs in Harbaugh’s direction over putting the pads on his rookies and claiming not to understand the rule.

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