The NFL and Domestic Violence: All Talk, No Walk

Goodell Featured DVThe NFL has a very public problem with domestic violence. In an attempt to combat this issue, the League has recently devoted some of its ample resources to putting in place a domestic violence policy governing the conduct of its players and hiring new employees to focus on domestic violence. You may have also seen public service announcements (PSAs) during the previous two Super Bowls to raise awareness for domestic violence. But is the NFL really doing anything tangible to protect domestic violence victims and to actually prevent future incidents of domestic violence from occurring?

While there is a possibility that the NFL had the best of intentions in adopting its domestic violence policy and supporting the PSAs, the only logical conclusion is that the NFL is merely acting to protect its public image and billion-dollar brand. In reality, the League has not taken any real steps to effectively implement its policy or actually protect victims from violence by its players or ensure that offenders are held accountable. The NFL’s actions exhibit a pattern of all talk and no walk, one in which the victim and her needs are glaringly absent.

The NFL’s Domestic Violence Blunders

The NFL’s continued gaffes in handling player domestic violence cases are well documented. The League recently launched an investigation into Browns’ QB Johnny Manziel for allegedly striking his ex-girlfriend Colleen Crowley during an argument on January 30th.

According to Crowley’s allegations in the police report and an affidavit, Manziel dragged Crowley to her car while she cried out for help. Crowley allegedly begged a parking attendant for help but he did nothing and allowed Manziel to throw her in the car. Manziel drove her home while acting “as if he were on some kind of drugs.”

Manziel DVWhile in the car, Crowley said that Manziel hit her several times and told her to “shut up or I’ll kill us both.” At one point, Crowley escaped from the car and hid in a bush. Manziel found her, grabbed her by her hair, and threw her back in the car. Crowley claims that she lost hearing in her left ear as a result from a blow from Manziel. When they arrived at Crowley’s apartment, Manziel smashed her phone on the ground to prevent her from calling for help. He only left when she grabbed a kitchen knife and advanced towards him.

Based on these allegations, Dallas police announced that they are launching a criminal investigation into a domestic violence assault complaint filed against Manziel, although no formal charges have been filed or arrest made. In addition, a Texas judge issued a protective order requiring Manziel to stay away from Crowley for two years citing, “there’s reason to believe family violence occurred.”

Could this violence have been avoided? An eerily similar incident took place between Crowley and Manziel only a few months ago. On October 12th, according to the police report, while the couple was arguing, Crowley attempted to jump from a car that was traveling at high speeds and Manziel grabbed her arm, leaving a visible mark. Crowley also stated that Manziel had pushed her head into the car window and hit her “a couple of times.” Despite the report of violence and the physical bruising on Crowley’s arm, the NFL concluded that there was an “insufficient basis” to discipline Manziel.

The failure to properly address domestic violence the first time it is reported has become the NFL’s modus operandi. In the most publicized incident, then-Baltimore Ravens’ running-back Ray Rice was arrested for assault in February 2014. Charges were later dropped. After TMZ released a video of Rice dragging his unconscious fiancé from an Atlantic City casino elevator, the NFL *investigated* the incident – in part by interviewing Rice and his wife at the same time, which even Goodell later admitted was a mistake – and suspended Rice for two games.

The failure to properly address domestic violence the first time it is reported has become the NFL’s modus operandi.

The two game suspension erupted a huge public outcry including ESPN host Keith Olbermann’s remark that the NFL’s then-policy requiring a one-year suspension for pot use but only a two-game suspension for domestic violence was creating “another generation of athletes and fans begin[ning] to view the women in sports as just a little less human.” After the public’s response that the suspension was too lenient and a second TMZ video released showing Rice slugging his wife in the face in the elevator surfaced (what did Goodell think – or ask Rice – had happened?), the NFL changed its course and suspended Rice indefinitely.

Rice appealed, and a federal judge vacated the indefinite suspension stating that the second suspension did not rely on any “new facts” and “was arbitrary.” The judge took note of the NFL’s domestic violence failures:

That the league did not realize the severity of the conduct without a visual record also speaks to their admitted failure in the past to sanction this type of conduct more severely.

Ray Rice DVThe League’s failure to adequately respond to domestic abuse did not stop with Rice. In the case of then-Carolina Panthers defensive lineman Greg Hardy – who threw his girlfriend against a bathroom tiled wall causing significant bruising and choked her until she told him to “kill me so I don’t have to”– the League first suspended Hardy for ten games. On appeal, League arbitrator Harold Henderson reduced the suspension to four games because the NFL did not have an adequate policy in place to provide the player notice that he could be suspended ten games.

In fact, if Hardy had appealed Henderson’s decision (he did not, for reasons unknown), he would have had a strong argument that his suspension should have been reduced further because the Personal Conduct Policy in place at that time only provided for a two game suspension for first time domestic violence offenders.

Of course, domestic violence is not unique to the NFL, or even the United States, but the NFL is in a unique position to affect and change the public’s perception and tolerance of it. For example, in 2012, 21 of 32 NFL teams employed at least one player with a domestic violence or sexual assault charge on his record. Continued support of offenders sends the wrong messages to young athletes and fans, thereby re-victimizing survivors at the same time. The media has called attention to the League’s ongoing problem with domestic violence for years. And the NFL wants the public to believe that it is doing something about it. Sadly, the evidence is to the contrary.

Protecting the Shield

NFL ShieldThe NFL is widely viewed by the public as an organization that values its brand (also known as “protect the shield”) above all else, including the health of its players and their families. Its protective instinct extends well beyond what goes on between the sidelines during the game. Former Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo acknowledged as much, saying that during his 30 years in the NFL, teams covered up hundreds of domestic violence incidents. “Our business is to win games,” Angelo said. “We’ve got to win games, and the commissioner’s job is to make sure the credibility of the National Football League is held in the highest esteem. [. . .] We got our priorities a little out of order.”

That despicable display of priorities has fostered an environment in which victims of NFL player violence suffer feelings of denial, secrecy, isolation, shame, and fear of ruining their partner’s careers as football players. While the League focuses on its top priority, protecting the shield, all other considerations are forced to take a back seat. Due to the high profile player perpetrators, if a victim speaks out about abuse, they risk disbelief from law enforcement, negative media attention, attacks on their character, and further risk of abuse. These risks are often present in many domestic violence cases, but when coupled with offenders who are idolized as heroes in their communities, victims have even fewer resources available to them or opportunities to escape additional harm.

Because of these barriers, victims are left with few access points to resources or services that might help them. They are often cut off from the outside world and geographically separated from family that may help them. A former New Orleans Saints player’s wife recounted:

He would remind me of that night, how no one would care if I was gone and how the cops did [not care]. It was all about him. He reminded me that I was alone and disposable.

The NFL’s Domestic Violence Policy

Browns’ QB (at least for now) Johnny Manziel has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons: he has been seen inebriated and out of control in Las Vegas; his agent dropped him as a client; and he reportedly assaulted his ex-girlfriend, again. The NFL has a second chance to address Johnny Manziel’s domestic violence issues. The real question is: Does anyone think the League will, or even wants to, get it right?

It is almost as if the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy was adopted only as a matter of optics.

Truth be told, it has likely already lost its chance. For a new policy to be enforceable, the League and the NFL’s Players Association (NFLPA) must collectively bargain with each other and jointly agree on the terms of the policy. When the NFL announced its Personal Conduct Policy in December 2014, which included increased penalties for domestic violence, the League was in crisis mode after the public outcry for botching the Ray Rice case. Acting hastily, the League approved and implemented the new policy without gaining approval from the Players Association. Shortly thereafter, the Players Association filed a grievance against the League for failing to collectively bargain the policy. Around that time, NFLPA President Eric Winston articulated the Players Association’s position on the policy:

The new personal conduct policy, I guess if you want to call it that, instituted by the league, in our eyes, my eyes and every players’ eyes violates the CBA in several ways and we are going to be grieving this as far as we can.

NFL FanIt is almost as if the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy was adopted only as a matter of optics, knowing that it could not be properly implemented without collective bargaining. Simply adopting the policy allowed the League to stay palatable to its growing female fan base (and sell them NFL tickets and gear) without addressing its very real problem with domestic violence.

If Manziel is indeed suspended, he will be the first player to be suspended for domestic violence under the new Personal Conduct Policy. As Winston’s comments indicate, the NFLPA will likely fight the suspension, arguing that the League implemented the policy unilaterally and therefore, the policy – and Manziel’s suspension – is invalid, regardless of the player’s underlying conduct. This could lead to the all too familiar scenario where Manziel will be suspended but the suspension will be vacated on appeal because the NFL cannot – or does not try to – get the process right.

The League’s refusal to include the NFLPA in negotiating the Personal Conduct Policy is mind-boggling. By contrast, Major League Baseball recently announced its own domestic violence policy and, as should have been the case with the NFL, it jointly negotiated and presented the policy with the MLB Players Association. Because of this negotiation, MLB suspensions will be far less susceptible to being overturned by the courts and the MLB has as much, if not more, power to discipline domestic violence offenders (the MLB Commissioner can suspend players for any number of games he chooses, rather than being tied to a certain number of games as is the case in the NFL). Again, the NFL’s mishandling of its policy leaves us to wonder whether it has any intention of actually holding its players accountable for their abuse.

The Truth About Recruits and Domestic Violence

In a seemingly positive development, this week the NFL announced a separate domestic violence policy prohibiting college players that have convictions for domestic violence, sexual assault or weapons charges from attending the NFL Combine, an event held every spring where college players showcase their abilities for League scouts. While, again, the policy may appear to demonstrate good intentions, in reality it misses the mark.

In almost 70 percent of the reported cases, prosecutors do not even file criminal cases, let alone obtain convictions.

First, for a variety of reasons, domestic violence crimes rarely lead to convictions. To illustrate, more than one-third of women in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime. Of those incidents, only 55 percent are even reported to police due to various barriers such as exposure to public scrutiny, disbelief and accusations by law enforcement, and risk of further abuse. Of occurrences that are reported, only one third are charged, meaning in almost 70 percent of the reported cases, prosecutors do not even file criminal cases, let alone obtain convictions. Beyond this, research has shown that professional athletes are even less likely than non-athletes to be convicted of domestic violence crimes.

Clark DVEven more troubling, there is reason to believe that missing the Combine may not affect whether and how high a player with a violent background is drafted. Take Seattle Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark. While in college, Clark was charged with domestic violence and kicked off of his college team. Despite this, the Seattle Seahawks drafted Clark in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft. The Seahawks claimed that they did a thorough investigation and determined that Clark did not hit a woman. Team representatives even went out of their to say that they “absolutely” would not have drafted Clark if they believed he hit a woman.

After the draft, a copy of the police report surfaced (a document that the Seahawks certainly should and could have reviewed). In the report, a witness described observing that Clark punched his girlfriend in the face and “grabbed her by the throat, picked her up off the ground and slammed her to the ground while also landing on top of her.” Confronted with this, the Seahawks admitted that they did not speak to any of the three witnesses from that night or the victim. The team could only have reached the conclusion that Clark did not hit a woman if it conducted a wholly insufficient investigation and relied on Clark’s version of the facts – which is apparently what they did.

As a further illustration of the NFL’s continuing failure to hold players accountable for domestic violence crimes, if the players discussed in this article were entering this year’s draft, Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Johnny Manziel and Frank Clark would likely all still be allowed to attend the Combine under the NFL’s new rules. The charges were dropped against Rice, Hardy effectively won his appeal of his conviction, Manziel has not yet been charged and Clark was never convicted of a domestic violence crime, rather, he pleaded down to misdemeanor disorderly conduct and only had to pay a $250 fine.

The impact of this failure is far-reaching. In addition to the offensive disregard for women generally that permeates the League, support of offenders serves to silence victims and reinforce the offender’s behavior. Moreover, there are broader economic and societal impacts, as well. Domestic violence damages the economy by restricting women’s healthy participation in it, removing working women from their jobs and burdening the healthcare system with their injuries. The global cost of intimate partner violence exceeds $8.3 billion per year. The NFL is certainly not responsible for the entirety of this cost, but in light of its very public platform and historical ineptitude in handling domestic violence, the League should be doing more to end it.

The NFL’s (In)Actions

The NFL has done little, if anything, to send the message that it truly intends to hold players accountable for committing domestic violence. Its recent actions, and inaction, evidence very little understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence and how to effectively protect women from violence by NFL players. In addition to putting its unenforceable personal conduct policy in place, it also created a mandated domestic violence training program for every player and employee in the League. But once again, reports on the effectiveness and efficacy of the training came up short.

Prompted by the Rice domestic abuse scandal, the NFL appointed Anna Isaacson, a League official with limited experience with domestic violence training, to oversee its domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault program. Within four short months, League personnel not only created an NFL training program from scratch, but also presented it to all 32 teams. The trainings were presented by various authority figures, such as a former prosecutor who specializes in sex crimes but with unknown expertise in offender training or addressing domestic violence. Not one of the former players who made presentations at the trainings had ever faced disciplinary action for domestic violence.

NFLPAUpon receiving complaints that the trainings were largely accusatory of all players, the NFLPA offered its assistance to the League to help make the program more effective. But the NFL did not use any of the suggested changes. Nor has it taken the advice of leading domestic violence advocates suggesting using a model that leverages players’ influence over each other and focusing more on a bystander educational approach. Isaacson may be a wonderful liaison through which League executives and experts communicate. But given that experienced advocates are concerned with the harm a lifetime ban may cause a victim who speaks out without the proper support services or the tone trainings must take to actually get through to their intended audiences, it seems the NFL just isn’t “hearing” what the experts are telling it.

Most importantly, the voice of the victim seems to be completely missing from the entire discourse. For example, at the inaugural Women’s Summit, a two-day event leading up to the Super Bowl, not one of the speakers addressed domestic violence, its effects on women, or its recurrence in the League. The Summit’s focus was on empowerment and inclusion, during which NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell pondered, “How do we get [women and girls] to develop the confidence that we believe is going to make them successful in life, whether they are professional athletes or not?” One could argue that merely mentioning the importance of keeping women safe in their homes would be a start.

Not one of the speakers at the NFL’s inaugural Women’s Summit addressed domestic violence, its effects on women, or its recurrence in the League  

In an a recent interview, Goodell contended that the NFL is working to address the issue of domestic violence and offered support for that assertion in stating “[i]n this past 12-month cycle, we had the lowest amount of arrests in the history of the NFL.” This statement flies in the face of what experts know of domestic violence reporting. Typically, we see an increase in reports of domestic violence, evidencing either growing confidence that the system will protect and provide for the victim or a decline in tolerance of violence among society at large through prevention efforts. Goodell’s statement, therefore, misconstrues statistics in an attempt to once again promote the brand without actually addressing the problem.

Even NO MORE, the NFL’s domestic violence partner and creator of the PSAs shown during the previous two Super Bowls has been criticized for being more about brand image than aiding victims of domestic violence. If you texted 94543 to “Learn How to Help,” as the PSA suggested, you likely consented to receive texts from NO MORE and received a link to the NO MORE website. But the non-profit does ‘no more’ than provide minimal awareness. Notably, it does not provide any services for domestic violence victims or even connect those in need to services that can actually help. Deadspin writer Diana Moskovitz describes it best, “All talk, little substance, and not a real charity, No More was a perfect fit for the NFL.”

What Can the NFL Do?

By now, you have likely seen the NFL’s Domestic Violence PSA, “Text Talk,” that aired after the halftime show during Super Bowl 50. You may have even read the numerous articles commending the NFL for sponsoring the ad, while also remarking that the commercial could have done more to directly address the NFL’s role in perpetuating domestic violence. What you didn’t see and haven’t heard from the NFL is any focus on the victim or discussion about what the NFL is doing to keep women safe.

The most honest and poignant ad regarding the NFL and domestic violence is one that didn’t even air during the game. Topless Women Talk NFL hits the nail on the head that the NFL does not do enough to protect women from violence perpetrated by its players.

Having a poorly enforced (and likely unenforceable) policy and two PSAs educating the public on how to identify signs of domestic violence is not a commitment to ending domestic violence within its ranks.

The NFL needs to, and can, do more. In order to send a message that it actually will protect women from violence, the NFL first needs to go back to the NFLPA and collectively bargain a personal conduct policy that can be enforced. Once the policy is agreed upon, the NFL needs to require ongoing league-wide trainings based on best practices of every employee and player so that they understand their role in implementation and enforcement.

Moreover, beyond the policy, the NFL must do better by the victims of player violence. It must devote its attention and resources to effective training for all NFL employees and players, cooperating with a justice system response to criminal violence, increasing offender rehabilitation programs, and providing victim services to those who suffer domestic violence at the hands of NFL athletes. It is time for the NFL to really put its money where its mouth is and truly start working towards a League that is free of domestic violence.

*Coauthor Amy Lauricella is the Staff Attorney at Global Rights for Women, a nonprofit that advocates for legal reform and systems change to promote women’s human rights to equality and freedom from violence.

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