Delayed penalty for Greg Hardy

Seven years ago this month, Carolina Panthers offensive guard Jeremy Bridges was arrested for allegedly pointing a gun at a dancer outside a Charlotte gentleman’s club. Bridges would dispute the charge, but the Panthers quickly suspended him for two regular-season games, which is what professional sports teams often do if the evidence is strong and the crime distasteful.

Last week, however, the team said that it would wait to discipline star defensive end Greg Hardy, who was convicted by a Mecklenburg County district judge of assaulting and threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend in May. Hardy is appealing the conviction, which will result in him receiving a jury trial, likely after this season. “We have to respect the legal process,” said Panthers’ general manager Dave Gettleman.

It’s a decision that invites cynicism. Hardy likely will be a free agent when his jury trial begins, so the team could theoretically play him now then wash its hands of him if he is found guilty again. Also, the team has to pay Hardy this season, suspension or not, perhaps lessening the motivation to punish. Whatever the reason, it’s a troubling call by the Panthers, one that seems out of character for a team that has represented its city so well.

Punishing player misbehavior can be a difficult balance of due process and public relations. There’s no handbook for such decisions; Bridges, in fact, wasn’t suspended by the Panthers after a lesser incident at a Charlotte restaurant in 2008. With Hardy, there are conflicting versions of what transpired between the player and ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder in May. So it was understandable that the team waited for District Court judge Becky Thorne Tin to hear the case this month.

But now, the team has received the same answer, again and again. Police sorted through the conflicting accounts and physical evidence, then arrested Hardy. The District Attorney’s office reviewed the evidence and decided to pursue a conviction. Thorne Tin, after hearing testimony from Hardy, Holder, police and others, ruled that Hardy threw Holder around his apartment and attempted to cover up the crime with a fabricated 911 call. And yet the team wants to wait longer.

The decision comes at a bad time for the National Football League, which last week suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for just two games despite visual evidence showing that he knocked out his fiancee with a punch and dragged her out of a hotel elevator. The suspension prompted outrage from critics who rightly wondered how rendering a woman unconscious could result in only half the punishment that comes with a first offense for marijuana use.

Panthers fans might understandably wonder the same about Greg Hardy. We don’t believe the team thinks attacking a woman is any less abhorrent than waving a gun at one. But the Panthers seem to be making a different calculation – that wins are more important than the message you send to players and the community about violence against women. That’s disappointing.