The NFL's domestic violence problem

July 28, 2014, 10:57 AM

— -- Today the NFL finally issued a two-game suspension for Baltimore running back Ray Rice. What an ugly situation.

This offseason Rice was reportedly caught on an elevator surveillance camera punching his then-girlfriend in the face. A few minutes later, in a video that went viral, Rice was seen pulling her apparently unconscious body out of the elevator.

And now ... two games? Commissioner Roger Goodell has issued longer suspensions for pot smoking, taking Adderall, DUI, illegal tattoos, dogfighting and eating a protein bar thought to be on the NFL's approved list.

Two games. It's a joke, and a bad one. Worse, it leaves the door open for people to think that Janay Rice bears a lot of the responsibility for eliciting the punch that seemingly knocked her out.

Two games. This comes in the same offseason when elite pass-rusher Robert Mathis got four games for, according to him, using an unapproved fertility drug as he and his wife tried to get her pregnant. Is the NFL saying that knocking out your fiancée is less problematic for the league than knocking up your wife without Roger Goodell's sign-off?

The NFL is sending a strong message by issuing such a weak suspension; it's about as meaningful as a yellow card in a soccer game.

And make no mistake, the NFL has a problem on its hands.

Too many NFL players have been arrested in high-profile cases involving violence against women. Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington and Rice are recent examples, and just this Wednesday, allegations of domestic violence surfaced against former Redskins tight end Fred Davis.

Washington was sentenced to a year of probation for assaulting the mother of his child after she said he shoved her down with both hands, breaking her collarbone. The NFL booted him for the entire 2014 season ... but a league spokesperson cited a second violation of the league's substance abuse policy as the reason. The suspension for domestic violence has yet to land.

"Any incident of domestic violence is really one too many," NFL VP of human resources Robert Gulliver told espnW recently. "Whenever these instances come up, I would say it's tragic and there's obviously a very swift move to address the issues with multiple parties being involved. We take these issues very seriously. Our security department gets involved, our management counsel gets involved, club staff gets involved and we just simply don't tolerate instances of domestic violence."


The NFL may say it doesn't tolerate domestic violence, but until the league puts its money where its players' fists are, those words are utterly empty.

Harry Edwards, a professor emeritus of sociology at UC Berkeley, has been a staff consultant on player personnel development with the San Francisco 49ers for 30 years. He said domestic violence is a complicated issue -- and to look no further than Janay Palmer's decision to marry Rice after he was indicted for aggravated assault.

That said, Edwards -- a longtime civil rights advocate -- thinks the NFL and other leagues can do more to combat violence against women among players and in society at large.

"This to me is a bigger problem than racism," Edwards said. "This is women, and it cuts across all lines. Domestic violence cuts across ethnic groups and class lines in this country, so is there room for the No. 1 league in this country to do more? Absolutely."

Edwards found the Rice incident particularly troubling because of the reaction from the Ravens. During a May news conference, both Ray and Janay addressed the media. She apologized for her role in the incident, while Rice apologized to his bosses. He never once said he was sorry to Janay. That kind of public showing sends a loud message, Edwards said.

"Now it's not just a noble act for the league to get its act together in terms of domestic violence," Edwards said. "It's now an imperative to get ahead of the curve on this."

And here we are: two games.

If the NFL is trying to tell players it won't tolerate domestic violence, how much of that message is getting through to the rank and file around the NFL? Most of the arrests listed above got a collective shrug from other players and executives. After seeing the Rice video, his boss, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, asked whether maybe a "different story" was going to come out.

Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate said there might be "another side to the story" when asked about Washington, who pled guilty to aggravated assault.

The idea underpinning comments like that is that women are in some way responsible for the violence, even if they are the ones who are physically harmed. It's pretty different from the way people look at someone whose wallet was stolen.

There can be suspicion toward women among pro athletes -- women are often characterized as gold-diggers, financial predators in high heels. It's an us-against-them way of looking at gender relations.

If the NFL wants to show women it cares, growing a spine on domestic violence would send a louder message than pink cleats in October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

And, to reiterate, that's not to say that NFL players and coaches don't do anything. Gulliver seems sincere in his attempts to create a respectful working environment that extends beyond the walls of the locker room, even if the decision-makers undercut that message with -- let me say it again -- two games.

There are plenty of coaches and players who contribute to education efforts and fundraisers. In June, Jets quarterback Geno Smith held a football camp that asked parents to bring phones to recycle, with funds from the refurbished phones to be used to benefit domestic violence organizations through Verizon's HopeLine.

"That's a worldwide issue, and it's about the kids," Smith said. "When kids grow up in homes with domestic violence or in broken homes, the key thing for us out here is to give back to the community and allow the kids to get out here amongst their peers and enjoy themselves."

Professional athletes may not be statistically more likely to be arrested for domestic violence than their age cohort in other fields, but maybe that puts a finer point on why these incidents should be taken seriously in such a high-profile community.

What the NFL does now is include anti-domestic violence education in the rookie programs, and former players are often tapped to speak about their experiences or areas of expertise. The NFL said women are in leadership positions within the league, and are key in developing the program.

"I think this broader topic of respect really encompasses a lot of areas," Gulliver said. "When we talk about respect it includes not only the locker room and the playing field. It really encompasses how we treat each other in all walks of life."

Two games. Not enough.

Domestic violence is addressed in the rookie symposium, in which there is a review of the league's personal conduct policy. It's also addressed in the rookie success program, which consists of nine mandatory 60-minute sessions, with two specifically dedicated to personal relationships.

Wade Davis of the You Can Play Project is helping the NFL address issues of sexual identity and inclusiveness. He said issues of sexual violence and identity have things in common, including dismissing anything that seems feminine.

As a former player himself, he knows that this kind of discussion can be hard for players, who don't want to be talked down to or lectured on social issues.

It's a tough thing to balance. Rookies are in orientation for two days and hear a raft of personal stories with a point, whether the villain in the story is bankruptcy, DUI or steroid use. All those topics are important, but is it even possible to keep players from tuning out?

Edwards said the NFL could have players sign a pledge as a way of putting more emphasis on the issue, and could certainly give more time to groups working to advocate or provide resources for women who have been abused. He noted that neither of those things would be affected by the collective bargaining agreement, which mandates how the league can respond to allegations of impropriety.

Yet Edwards sees domestic violence becoming more of a problem for the league. Noting the Rice video, he said cameras, camera phones and social media will only put more of a spotlight on the issue. Allegations of alcohol-related impropriety against Colts owner Jim Irsay are also troubling, he noted, but there's no video.

The really scary question then becomes: What kind of a video does Roger Goodell need to see before he takes domestic violence seriously?