Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell screwed up.
It's really that simple, as far as the offense goes. He screwed up, and he did so with his friend and teammate, LeGarrette Blount, alongside him. They were both in the car, they both admitted to smoking marijuana, they both tested positive.
Bell was the one operating the car, and marijuana's intoxicating chemical -- Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) -- stays in the body a long time. He was operating a vehicle under the influence of an intoxicant. Facts are facts, no matter your opinion of the situation.
Bell, the Steelers, many in sports media and a large contingent of fans expected a two-game ban, and few would argue that it wasn't warranted. He broke the rules. Even if he had been caught in a residence in Colorado, where the drug's use is legal, he broke rules the NFL collectively bargained with players. The argument of the validity of any punishment ends there.
So, when the league announced Thursday that Bell would be suspended for three games, to say that many fans were incensed over it would be putting it lightly.
In another professional American sports league with a longer season -- and, really, they all have longer seasons -- the difference between two games and three is pretty much a non-issue. In the NFL, though, that goes from 12.5 percent of the season to 18.75 percent. It's a huge difference, and a long time to be without arguably the team's most valuable player, at least based on last season.
The real crux of the problem, though, isn't even the difference between two and three games. It's that the NFL, who released their own revised drug policy just last September, isn't sticking to it. For reference, the entire policy can be found here, and a summary can be found right here on SB Nation.
Let's do a little math. First, let's assume this really is Bell's first offense, because we haven't heard of any problems before this. Discipline for a first offense of using marijuana is simply placement in the league's substance abuse program. That's all, nothing more. In fact, according to the policy, a player can be in violation three times without a suspension -- second offenses are a two-game fine, then a four-game fine; only on the fourth offense does a four-game suspension come into play. Remember that number, too, because it's part of the NFL's complete inability to do basic arithmetic.
There is a DUI to consider, of course. In the past, there was no penalty for a first offense; under the new drug policy, a first offense garners a two-game suspension. So here is the worst-case math at this point: assume Bell had already violated the marijuana-use portion of the policy three times prior, and this was his fourth offense. That's a four-gamer. Add in the DUI, which is two games, and you get six games. So, clearly, that wasn't the case.
What if he was a first-time offender on both counts? Well, that's zero plus two, which is two. Something just doesn't add up.
The complicating factor here is the personal conduct policy -- complicating not because it clearly evens out the math, but rather because it's not well-defined. Heck, see for yourself. The policy doesn't give the league wiggle room; it gives them carte blanche. Which is what they already had in the first place, before they revised it in the face of the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson issues last year in order to save face.
This is where having two distinct policies becomes a problem, especially when discipline is well-defined in one and not defined at all in the other. The only difference between Bell's case, at least in the case of possession, is that Bell was caught by law enforcement rather than the league's own testing mechanisms. Had it been the latter, he would be in the substance abuse program with no further discipline. But, because a criminal charge was filed, he faces discipline under the personal conduct policy, as well.
That serves a single purpose: so the NFL executives can cover their own rear-ends. Consider this: two players get high together in the restroom of a club. Neither is a past offender of the drug policy. Both walk home, but one walks past a police officer, who smells the drug's distinct odor, while the other does not. The second player tests positive during a random test a week later.
Both did the same thing, at the same time. Both got caught, but by two different authorities. The first player will get suspended under the personal conduct policy, while the second player gets a slap on the wrist. The only difference? Their routes home.
The tragedy here isn't that Bell is suspended. He broke the rules and had to be disciplined. The NFL were right, up to that point. However, it's clear they are applying both the drug policy and the personal conduct policy -- either that, or they are just doing what they've done for so long: making it up as they go. Either way, the end result is that it proves their "new and improved policies" do little to actually make substantive changes in the way they go about disciplining players.
Bell's one saving grace here may well be that NFL CEO Roger Goodell is no longer the person who hears appeals. Chances are good that the penalty will be reduced once the appeal is heard, and that this issue of farcical enforcement of poorly defined rules will be forgotten.
Which may very well be the biggest crime in this story.