Tens of thousands of people have signed onto a petition drive that calls on the NFL to implement specific guidance and harsher punishments for players involved in incidents of violence against women after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued a miniscule suspension to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice last week.
The league suspended Rice for two games and fined the running back $58,000 after he was charged with aggravated assault stemming from an incident at an Atlantic City hotel in February. Rice was caught on security cameras dragging his unconscious fiancee out of a hotel elevator; police reportedly have video of Rice punching his then-fiancee (and current wife) earlier in the evening.
The two-game suspension is shorter than many marijuana and performance-enhancing drug-related suspensions the league has handed down — notably, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon could face a year-long suspension for failing a marijuana test — and CREDO Action took notice, launching a petition drive that calls on the league to better standardize its punishments for involvement in sexual assaults and domestic violence.
The league, the petition notes, has standard punishments for drug and steroid use, but issues like sexual assault and domestic violence are handled under the NFL’s personal conduct policy. Goodell decided any punishment subject to that policy, but the petition wants that to change.
“The shamefully insufficient two-game suspension of Ray Rice for his documented assault of Janay Palmer sends a terrible message about how the NFL views violence against women,” the petition’s message to Goodell states. “You need to take a strong stand and implement guidance — including appropriate discipline — for how the league will handle domestic violence, sexual assault, and any other violence against women in the future.”
As of Monday morning, the petition had garnered more than 48,000 signatures on its way to a goal of 75,000.
“We believe the discipline we issued is appropriate,” NFL vice president Adolpho Birch said on ESPN’s Mike and Mike radio show Monday morning. “It is multiple games and hundreds of thousands of dollars. I think it’s fair to say that doesn’t reflect that you condone the behavior.”
“I think it is absolutely clear to all involved that the NFL does not condone domestic violence in any way and will not tolerate it in our league,” Birch continued. “I don’t know how you can reach a conclusion other than that, although I certainly respect the opinion.”
The NFL obviously does not condone domestic violence. But the Rice suspension, as ESPN’s Chris McKendry said on SportsCenter Monday morning, “does not send the message of zero-tolerance,” especially on an issue that the league needs to address. Along with Rice, Carolina Panthers defensive lineman Greg Hardy is currently appealing his conviction on domestic violence charges, and former Washington tight end Fred Davis is facing potential domestic assault charges. High-profile domestic violence and sexual assault cases involving NFL players are nothing new: there was Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide in 2012, Darren Sharper’s long list of date-rape and sexual assault charges this year, and plenty of other similar cases to point to. According to Slate, 21 of 32 NFL rosters in 2012 included at least one player who had faced criminal investigations over sexual assault or domestic violence.
The league’s drug policy is collectively bargained with the NFL Players Association. Issues like domestic violence and assault are handled by Goodell under the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
While the NFL’s punishment drew its share of criticism, it also sparked some ugly responses. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, for instance, warned women not to “provoke” men into violence during a TV appearance last week, then went on Twitter to defend himself before issuing an apology this morning. ESPN reporter Michelle Beadle, meanwhile, was blasted by many social media users for calling Smith out, and other women have faced a similar response for pointing to issues of sexism around Rice’s suspension. The petition, though, gives the NFL and its players a chance to take a stand and use Rice’s saga as a chance to improve the league’s policies. And given the league’s prominence, taking a strong stance to address issues like this could set a standard that lower levels of sports and other parts of society learn from too.