Natalie Perez-Smith didn't know what to make of the digital message she saw on an Elmwood Avenue parking meter.
The 20-year Buffalo cop never had seen that before. So she snapped a picture to dispute the possible ticket for parking at a conked out meter. Then Perez-Smith headed into the restaurant for a spirited chat about how inoperable the NFL looks these days.
Perez-Smith knows football. She had Buffalo Bills season tickets before her future husband, skeleton-rattling safety Leonard Smith, joined the team in 1988.
"I'm married to an NFL player who used to knock people out," Perez-Smith said.
Their fifth anniversary is in a couple weeks. She wasn't with him during the glory, but she gets to live with the aftermath.
"When he would hit somebody, the crowd would go crazy," Perez-Smith said. "And he was a bit of a showboat. I thought it was fun back then.
"Not anymore. It's upsetting to me. I get sick."
Perez-Smith's NFL thoughts go deeper than the health of players' brains. For the past nine years she has been a detective with the Buffalo Police Department's Sex Offense Squad that specializes in domestic violence, sex abuse and child abuse.
She can't comprehend how the NFL handles punishment, and last weekend overloaded her highly trained circuitry. She's an FBI-certified hostage negotiator and a certified forensic interviewer.
But to learn New York Giants kicker Josh Brown, who received only a one-game suspension for domestic violence, had admitted to abusing his wife multiple times? While players get suspended four games for marijuana?
"Smoking weed or treating your wife like a slave should not be handled the same way," Perez-Smith said. "How does that even compare?
"I can't wrap my head around that."
And to watch Miami Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry get flagged 15 yards for spinning the football to celebrate a catch one series before he was penalized the same 15 yards for perhaps ending Bills safety Aaron Williams' career with an illegal crackback block?
The parking meter became a metaphor.
The Buffalo Police Department has a parking division that tickets relatively minor transgressions and a Sex Offense Squad that handles some of the most heinous crimes imaginable.
The same agency handles both areas. But one is nickels and dimes. The other is grim reality.
Imagine if citizens believed local law enforcement was exaggeratedly interested in pocket change compared to the most serious crimes.
NFL fans are, at best, confused by The Shield's seemingly arbitrary standards and tone deafness.
For example, The Shield (as the NFL, with gravitas, likes to refer to itself when promoting honor and integrity) fined Landry $24,309 for launching into Williams and knocking him from the game.
Williams didn't play Sunday against the New England Patriots at New Era Field. Bills coach Rex Ryan suggested Williams won't return any time soon.
The NFL fined New York Giants defensive end Owa Odighizuwa $12,154 for pretending to take a snapshot of safety Landon Collins, who had returned an interception for a touchdown last Sunday.
Two fake photographs are worth a career-threatening hit.
"I know there are rules that need to be followed, but so much of it is silliness," Perez-Smith said. "Who in the NFL is picking and choosing what to emphasize?
"The things that matter aren't getting a quarter of the focus they deserve."
The NFL's personal-conduct policy was revamped in 2014 in response to the high-profile case against Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. The baseline punishment for the first domestic-violence offense is supposed to be a six-game suspension.
The NFL initially suspended Brown one game -- this year's opener -- for a 2015 incident in which no charges were filed, although Brown's wife accused him of being physically violent with her more than 20 times.
Giants owner John Mara said the team knew of the allegations in April, when they signed Brown to a two-year, $4 million contract extension. Mara later revealed Brown had confessed to the Giants he had abused his wife, but the club didn't know to what extent and kept him anyway.
Final police investigation documents from Brown's case were made public Oct. 20. In letters, emails and a journal, Brown admitted to physically, verbally and emotionally abusing his wife.
A day later, the NFL suspended Brown with pay. The Giants, professing they were "misguided" in their attitude toward Brown's legal troubles before, cut him Oct. 25.
Making the NFL's "justice system" even more difficult for fans to understand is that law-and-order Commissioner Roger Goodell oversees punishments and handles the appeals, too.
Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement gives the commissioner ultimate power to punish players and teams as he chooses. It's what allows Goodell to suspend Tom Brady four games for under-inflated footballs and Brown one game for domestic violence.
The Shield has struggled with its optics on so many social issues.
The Cleveland Browns last week welcomed disgraced former Baylor University coach Art Briles as a consultant. At least five NFL clubs invited Briles to attend their training camps this summer.
Baylor fired Briles in May because his program was rife with sexual and domestic assault allegations. Two Baylor players have been convicted; a third is under indictment. An independent investigation found Briles' staff discouraged women from coming forward and obstructed the investigation.
In a Wall Street Journal story Friday, Baylor regents stated 17 women have reported sexual or domestic assaults involving 19 players since 2011. The regents added Briles knew about at least one alleged incident but declined to alert police or university authorities.
Perez-Smith turned 50 in August and will retire from the police force in February. Investigating rapes and child abuse for nine years has worn her nerves thin.
"I love what I do," she said. "As much as it's heartbreaking, it is rewarding when you can tell a kid, 'He will never hurt you again.'
"But I cry when I go home."
Perez-Smith would leap at an opportunity to work with the NFL on addressing what's truly important.
"I don't want to bash the NFL, but I'm not happy with them at all," Perez-Smith said. "Spinning a ball is funny to me, but how does Josh Brown admit to the things he did and get a one-game suspension?
"They need consistency. The NFL is all over the place."
A fine mess
Brown kicked in five NFL games between his one-game suspension and his release.
He made $72,058.81 in each game. He received a $500,000 signing bonus in May and a $25,000 bonus for attending enough voluntary offseason workouts.
The Shield, meanwhile, was fining other players tens of thousands for transgressions such as wearing customized cleats and overzealous jubilation.
Excessive celebration and taunting penalties have been emphasized this year.
ESPN reported taunting penalties increased 220 percent, while unsportsmanlike conduct penalties rose 56 percent through the first quarter of the season.
A new NFL rule induces an automatic ejection when a player commits two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls in the same game. Landry's two 15-yard penalties didn't meet the criteria because the hit on Williams was considered unnecessary roughness, a "football play" as opposed to fighting or a post-whistle violation.
Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown was levied the same $24,309 fine Landry received for the illegal crackback. Brown's hip thrusts after a Week Four touchdown were deemed "sexually suggestive."
Washington cornerback Josh Norman was fined $9,115 for shooting an imaginary bow and arrow after a touchdown because it mimicked a violent act.
For the record, a nuclear spike -- New England tight end Rob Gronkowski's signature move -- is free of charge.
"Some of the stuff," Virgil Seay said, "doesn't make sense."
Seay was a charter member of the Fun Bunch, who in the early 1980s would celebrate Washington touchdowns by circling up for a group high-five. The NFL outlawed the Fun Bunch in 1985, implementing rules against premeditated celebrations.
"They are trying to take some of the fun out of the game," Seay said Friday from Virginia. The 5-foot-8 receiver was known as Papa Smurf within Washington's wee receiving corps, The Smurfs. "We did it as a group thing to stay energized, to continue to play well, to get the crowd excited.
"Celebrations now are more individualized. To me, that's more selfish."
A few years after the Fun Bunch came one of the NFL's most famous individual celebrations: the Ickey Shuffle.
Ickey Woods rushed for 1,066 yards and 15 touchdowns as a Cincinnati Bengals rookie in 1988, doing the Ickey Shuffle twice against the Bills -- right in front of Leonard Smith -- in the AFC Championship Game.
The Ickey Shuffle made a bigger mark on the NFL than Woods' career. Only once after his rookie season did he run for more than 50 yards in a game.
The NFL found the Ickey Shuffle too subversive for the end zone, although Woods danced only at home games. He eventually moved his celebration to Cincinnati's sideline to avoid a penalty.
"The acronym for the NFL was the No Fun League," Woods said Tuesday from his home in Cincinnati. "These are either kids out of college who weren't allowed to express themselves or veterans who are still young at heart, loving the game they play.
"I understand it's a business, but fans love to see it. The fans pay all that money to come to these games to be entertained, so why not let the players entertain them?"
While some celebration and taunting penalties seem subjective, NFL rules prohibit any revelry that's choreographed or prolonged.
Automatic fouls include throat slashes, using a foreign object (such as the marker Terrell Owens pulled out of his sock to autograph a touchdown ball, or the cellphone Joe Horn stashed within the goal stanchion padding to make a call), dunking the ball over the goal post or any gesture directed at an opponent.
The latter is why Landry was flagged 15 yards for taunting after a long catch.
Landry spun the ball like a top, which would be allowed if he weren't on the Bills' sideline.
What Landry did to Aaron Williams shouldn't be allowed anywhere.
Unless you ask Leonard Smith.
'Violent sport, beautiful sport'
There is a place in the NFL for that crackback play, Smith insisted.
Smith is aware his opinion runs counter to a lot of expectations. He was a Bill now vouching for a Dolphin. He played safety, Williams' position. Smith divulged he's suffering from memory and rage issues in addition to busted up knees and hands. He also knows how his wife feels, but he can't side with her on this one.
"Jarvis Landry could've broken his neck," Perez-Smith said. "Leonard says 'That's football.' I don't agree with that."
Then again, Smith's nickname was The Hitman. He was a vicious tackler, a second-team All-Pro, the 17th overall selection in the hallowed 1983 draft class.
"Landry hit him properly other than he went a little high," Smith said. "I'm hurt that Williams might not be able to continue his career. But any hit Williams tried to make on a ball carrier might've ended his career, too.
"Landry was a wide receiver trying to protect a running back. His job was to block the safety to prevent him from being the first one to the running back.
"Williams was going to separate that running back's head from his shoulders if he could've. He got cut off at the pass."
Smith sounded disgusted to hear Landry's pay was docked. The 15-yard penalty, Smith contended, was punishment enough.
"He shouldn't have gotten that big of a fine," Smith said. "That's wrong.
"We're reaching now. Don't call him dirty. He gave a shot, but don't label this young man a no-good player."
Smith and his wife watched the Bills-Dolphins game at Pluckers, a Louisiana State University sports bar in Baton Rouge.
Smith still lives in his hometown. He runs his family's small-engine repair shop there and prefers the weather. He and Perez-Smith finally will get a place on Florida's Gulf Coast once she leaves the force in February.
He only recently has begun to open up about his brain issues. He said he wants to get better so they can maintain quality of life in their retirement.
"I'm a living witness of what the game can do to you," Smith said. "I got head issues right now. I got memory loss. I react too quickly with my temper, the slightest little thing."
Smith estimated he suffered 12 concussions. He was knocked unconscious on the field a couple times. He said he has watched film of himself in a game he didn't remember playing in the day before. There was that time with the St. Louis Cardinals he couldn't make the defensive calls because his vision went black.
When Smith played, he explained, players were encouraged to, "Knock the dude's mouthpiece out and send his helmet flying the other way." That's just how it was, and, as far as Smith is concerned, still should be.
"It's a violent sport, a gladiator sport, a beautiful sport," Smith said.
Nobody considered Smith a victim or called him vulnerable when massive Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Eric Green smoked him so badly Smith came out of his shoe.
"How can you control violence at that speed, when big bodies are creaming each other?" Smith said. "Only the strong survive. If you don't want to play the game, then don't play the game.
"I would do it again without getting paid because I loved it. The game benefitted me as a man and allowed me to take care of my family. I'm blessed."
The NFL has an image problem when it comes to legislating itself.
The league micromanages celebrations and uniform codes, yet bungles significant cases of humanity like Josh Brown and Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson.
The league prosecutes deflated footballs to the hilt, yet insists on producing substandard games with players on short rest every Thursday night.
The league rails against the evils of gambling, yet embraces daily fantasy sports.
The league gets tough on marijuana, yet dispenses painkillers in the locker room.
All the while, brain safety remains an elusive concept.
"There's a lot of things the NFL needs to do to be consistent with their consequences," Seay said, "whether the player is a kicker or on the field every down."
Seay is the receivers coach for George Mason University's club team. He would like to see the NFL adopt the college rule that triggers an automatic ejection and a possible carryover suspension into the next game for any player who targets an opponent above the shoulders. Such penalties are reviewed by a replay official.
"When I first saw this penalty called," Seay said, "I thought, 'Wow. This is serious.' But I guess you have to be serious when it comes to targeting.
"When you target, that's what you're trying to do, harm your opponent. You can also hurt yourself."
Landry launched himself into Williams by leaving his feet and using his shoulder and helmet to strike Williams in the head.
"No one really applies the fundamentals anymore," Seay said. "Players are launching themselves at each other. When you lose the fundamentals, people get hurt."
Under that policy, Leonard Smith would've been ejected from a few games.
Smith is the subject of a YouTube hype video set to heavy-metal song "Hail to the King" by Avenged Sevenfold. Smith's fearless style is evident along with foreboding commentary about the way he delivers punishment.
"There's a phone ringing in his helmet," NBC analyst Bob Trumpy says about an opponent Smith has popped. "Leonard Smith is the one on the other end of the line."
Flippant talk about head injuries is frowned upon these days. NFL Films formerly marketed highlight videos titled "Master Blasters," "Moment of Impact," "The Best of Thunder and Destruction" and "NFL Crunch Course."
The "Football Follies" blooper series would poke fun at players staggering about the field and spotlight outlandish tackles.
The NFL has been resistant to admitting repeated head trauma from football can lead to debilitating issues, but the league has stopped profiting from collision videos.
The NFL is a hulking enterprise, plenty large enough to police minor infractions and serious charges simultaneously.
For many observers, and one uniquely experienced voice in particular, the NFL's scales of justice have lacked proper calibration.
"They focus on too many things that don't matter," Perez-Smith said.
Parking meters must be enforced.
The problem is that while the NFL is scribbling out all those trivial tickets and flubbing profound cases, fans see The Shield is more interested in misdemeanors.
Story topics: Aaron Williams/ Adrian Peterson/ Antonio Brown/ Art Briles/ Eric Green/ Ickey Woods/ Jarvis Landry/ Joe Horn/ John Mara/ Josh Brown/ Josh Norman/ Landon Collins/ Leonard Smith/ Marcell Dareus/ Natalie Perez-Smith/ Owa Odighizuwa/ ray rice/ Rex Ryan/ Rob Gronkowski/ roger goodell/ Terrell Owens/ tom brady/ Virgil Seay