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The NFL’s decision to un-invite Chad Kelly from the combine was one of PR, not discipline

The league’s explanation for why Kelly isn’t in Indianapolis this week doesn’t add up.

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Mississippi v LSU Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Not too long ago, Chad Kelly fully expected to travel to the NFL Combine this week to sooth concerns over his rocky past and show team doctors the progress he’s made in rehabbing his surgically-repaired knee. He’d already accepted his invitation and booked his flight to Indianapolis.

Then on Feb. 9, Kelly received a call informing him that he was no longer invited, that his name had been added to a list of barred prospects that includes Joe Mixon, the Oklahoma running back who was caught on video punching a woman in the face, and Ishmael Zamora, the Baylor wideout who was filmed beating a dog with a belt.

So what transgression pulled Kelly off the guest list? For a while, not even he knew. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller detailed a process in which Kelly’s camp made repeated requests of multiple league officials only to be met by non-answers and vague references to the quarterback’s off-field trouble. Kelly’s agent considered sending his client to Indianapolis anyway. PFT Commenter offered to get him a media pass.

It wasn’t until Chad’s Hall of Fame uncle, Jim, reached out to Roger Goodell that things started to move, according to an in-depth report published by Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports last week. Goodell put Kelly’s agent in touch with Executive Vice President Jeff Pash, who handed it off to the chief disciplinary officer B. Todd Jones, who finally confirmed that the rescinded invitation is tied to Kelly’s 2015 arrest for a bar fight in Buffalo.

But that still doesn’t add up.

Technically, Kelly’s arrest doesn’t seem to violate the league’s policy.

Days after signing his letter of intent with Ole Miss, Kelly was arrested in his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. following a physical altercation with bouncers at a local bar. When pulled over by police as he left the scene, Kelly reportedly took swings at officers and resisted arrest. The incident resulted in a string of misdemeanor charges, including third-degree assault.

In February of last year, the NFL enacted a new policy that decried “draft-eligible prospects will not be permitted to participate in any aspect of the combine if a background check reveals a conviction of a felony or misdemeanor involving violence or use of a weapon, domestic violence, sexual offense and/or sexual assault.”

Here’s the thing, though: Kelly was only convicted of non-criminal disorderly conduct, a charge his agent likens to a speeding ticket. After entering into a plea deal, Kelly served 50 hours of community service and had the rest of the charges dropped.

Of course, the NFL, like the NCAA, allows itself plenty of flexibility when interpreting and enforcing its own policies. Kelly may not have violated the law’s letter, but the league apparently believes he violated its spirit. Here’s what Kelly’s agent, Vance McAllister, told Yahoo about his exchange with Jones, the league’s chief disciplinary officer:

Jones told [McAllister] that the severity of the initial charges (plus the ugly look of the surveillance video that had been posted by police online) and the disorderly conduct conviction were the reasons why Kelly would not be invited and that “good lawyering” was the reason it was pleaded down to a non-criminal misdemeanor.

In that case, why are Dede Westbrook and Devonte Fields allowed at the combine?

Westbrook, the Oklahoma wideout who joined Baker Mayfield in New York as a Heisman finalist, was arrested twice under accusations of domestic abuse—once in 2012 for allegedly shoving the mother of his two children to the ground and again in 2013 for allegedly biting and punching the same woman. Charges were dropped in the first case and the second was dismissed for "inability to locate state's witness."

Fields, a defensive end for TCU, was investigated by police in 2014 after he was accused of punching and pointing a gun at his ex-girlfriend, who opted not to press charges. No arrest was made but the school suspended Fields for three games.

Both Westbrook and Fields will be in in Indianapolis this week. Neither was convicted of a crime, but why did the NFL not consider “the severity of the initial charges” as it did with Kelly? And if it was just “good lawyering” that got Kelly out of trouble, couldn’t it be argued that it was the “inability to locate state’s witness” that spared Westbrook?

“If I charge you with, say, molestation—anyone can say anything—and of course you get off, well, then no one should consider the initial charges,” McAllister told Yahoo. “If it’s bogus, it’s bogus. We need to deal with the facts of the case and the final outcome, not what was said originally.”

In any event, the league knew about Kelly’s widely-publicized arrest when it initially invited him.

So what would make them suddenly backtrack?

This from Yahoo’s Edholm after speaking with Jeff Foster, the combine organizer and the man who called Kelly to rescind the invitation:

Foster would not confirm as much, but this certainly reads as if more has been unearthed on Kelly from the bar incident than what has been widely reported... As McAllister called around over the past few weeks, he eventually was led to believe that it was the bar incident alone that the NFL balked on and that something specific about it was what led to Kelly not being allowed to participate in Indy. Something the NFL learned after they had deemed him invitation-worthy initially.

But if there’s some dark, unreported detail of Kelly’s arrest, why would his legal team risk it going public by vocally contesting the league’s decision? Why turn this into a national story if Kelly has something to hide?

More importantly, why wouldn’t the NFL tell Kelly the real reason for his ban?

In the end, this is probably a simple PR decision by the NFL.

NFL discipline is a concern not of morality, but of public relations. Kelly’s had his fair share of bad press—from getting booted from Clemson’s team to running onto a field during a high school football brawl to showing up in an Instagram picture with weed—and the decision to un-invite him from the combine is probably based on that body of the work, even if the NFL won’t admit it.

The fact that Kelly’s incident was caught on film makes him even more of a PR liability for the league, which proved during the Ray Rice debacle that it’s not what an employee does, but what the public can see an employee do. Westbrook and Fields weren’t caught on camera. Kelly and the two other barred players—Mixon and Zamora—were.

The decision to ban Kelly from the biggest job interview of his life provides even more evidence that the NFL’s interest in discipline extends only far enough to cover its own back.