09/17/2014 12:42 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

Vick, Incognito, Rice, Peterson, and the Power of Symbols

If there is one thing the NFL understands, it is symbolism. That is the essence of the business after all: taking events with no inherent meaning and making it stand for something. The NFL's genius is in bringing us iconic characters and actions that would not exist but for the artifice of the game. Without the symbols and marketing, the Green Bay Packers are just a bunch of guys on a lawn.

That's what makes the league's bumbling reactions to a series of player scandals so tragic. Each of them represents an opportunity for the league, based on known evidence, to use its greatest power -- the creation of symbols -- for a deep social good. At times it has done this, but the league's actions have been neither consistent nor intentional. That should change.

Consider the variety of social issues raised by just some of the player behavior that has made the news. Michael Vick was convicted of running a dogfighting ring, Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens knocked his girlfriend unconscious, Richie Incognito of the Miami Dolphins bullied a teammate with racial insults, and Adrian Peterson beat his four-year-old son with a switch. This is a striking set of social issues on which there is a national consensus. We have passed the point where a significant moral argument could plausibly be made in favor of dogfighting, domestic violence, racial bullying, and corporal punishment that leaves scars. As a society we now reject those actions of violence and intimidation as wrong.

Were the NFL to use its power for good, it would consistently, quickly, and confidently condemn and sanction all of these behaviors. Right now, though, the messages it sends are muddled and weak. For example, consider the four incidents described above. They involved four different types of victims -- animals, a woman, a small child, and an NFL players -- and four different kinds of harms (animals fighting one another, a punch to the face, corporal punishment with a tree branch, and insult). The response was swift in dealing with Richie Incognito, who sent a series of texts to teammate Jonathan Martin containing threats and racial insults.

The way Incognito was treated stands in stark contrast with the Vick, Rice and Peterson cases. When Incognito's texts were made available to the Dolphins in the middle of last season, they indefinitely suspended him, which was appropriate. He has not returned to the NFL. The meandering response to Rice's actions went from nothing to a two-day suspension, to an indefinite suspension when the full video of the incident went viral. Vick was suspended only after he pled guilty. The Vikings announced that Peterson was expected to play for the Vikings on Sunday in New Orleans, before the team reversed course and "exempted" him from the team. These wobbly responses weren't driven by conflicting or unknown fact. In the Vick, Rice, and Peterson cases the plain truth of the underlying violence was publicly known well before a legal outcome was determined. A video of an unconscious woman or the photos of a beaten child speak for themselves.

It can't be that the NFL cares more about insults to a player than it does about domestic abuse or the welfare of children and animals, but it sure looks that way. The argument might be made that in the cases of Vick, Rice, and Peterson the NFL and the teams themselves were waiting to allow the criminal law process to complete its course, but that falls apart when held up against Incognito's situation. He wasn't charged with a crime, and wasn't likely to be charged with a crime. And yet, swift action was taken.

As a federal prosecutor and as a law professor, I have seen the struggles our society has had with consistent reaction to crime and social harm. We have often gotten it wrong, and the discretion of prosecutors and judges sometimes leads to unfair disparities. But at least we try to make things consistent, through the employment of identifiable standards and policies. The NFL, if it wants to enforce standards of player behavior, needs to do the same, and soon.

Make no mistake about one thing: the NFL is a business, created to make money. It's not a church or a prosecutor's office. Still, it is a business that is rooted in the creation of symbols and the building-up of heroes. A kid wearing a Ray Rice jersey or coming home to an Adrian Peterson poster on his bedroom door is the target of that myth-making. The NFL is one of that boy's teachers, and what it teaches is values: Strength, determination, perseverance. It takes nothing away from that business to also teach limits and respect for other men, women, children, and animals. That's the thing about creating heroes, after all; there will always be another running back to promote into heroism.