Rob Valente remembers the moment like it was yesterday. It was September 8, 2014, and she was in Washington, D.C., surrounded by hundreds of domestic violence advocates from across the country to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first Violence Against Women Act being signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
At the time, Valente was working as a consultant for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and that morning she was having breakfast at the hotel with Katie Ray-Jones, the hotline’s CEO. Suddenly, between eggs and coffee, Ray-Jones’ phone started ringing off the hook.
The messages were not good. NDVH’s website was completely down. The hotline itself was being flooded with so many calls that the system was close to crashing.
It didn’t take long for Valente and Ray-Jones to figure out what had happened. TMZ had released the now-infamous video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancee, now wife, Janay Palmer in the elevator of an Atlantic City hotel in February 2014.
All over social media and SportsCenter, on repeat, millions of people watched Rice punch Palmer and drag her unconscious body off camera. While questions about the incident had been percolating for months, suddenly there was nothing hypothetical or hearsay about what occurred in that elevator.
As the video circulated, so too did the number for the NDVH. That day, the hotline received an 84 percent increase in calls and chats. Some were from people so traumatized by the video they just needed to talk to someone and find out how they could help. Other calls were from family and friends worried that someone they knew and loved was in the same situation as Palmer. And thousands of calls were from women who recognized themselves in the video, and were reaching out for help and information for the first time.
The already-understaffed hotline was swamped, and was barely able to answer half of the incoming requests for assistance. But a few days later, Ray-Jones got another call. This time it was from the NFL. The league had heard about the problems the hotline was having, and it wanted to help.
That wasn’t the only call the NFL made. The league moved quickly to try to repair its badly damaged image in the wake of its bungled response to the Rice incident, vowing to — among other things — educate its players, revamp its personal conduct policy, and support leading domestic violence and sexual assault awareness and prevention groups.
One year later, ThinkProgress checked up on these initiatives, and confirmed that the NFL has indeed devoted millions of dollars and a significant amount of time to trying to figure out how to address domestic violence, both within the league and among the public.
But while that money and time is being put to good use on a national scale, the local domestic violence and sexual assault centers that provide direct service work — the ones that the national groups rely on for the on-the-ground assistance — are still struggling to stay afloat. And while the NFL is trying to address its internal issues through training and regulations, changing the culture of the league is far easier said than done, particularly with the same leadership intact.
The NFL appears to be taking some steps in the right direction. But there’s still a long way to go — and no clear path toward getting there.
The NFL’s Money At Work
With the NFL in crisis mode in the immediate aftermath of the Rice elevator video becoming public, Anna Isaacson, the league’s newly appointed VP of social responsibility, and the rest of her team set out to understand more about domestic violence and sexual assault. They went on what Isaacson described as a “listening tour” across the country, speaking to approximately 150 experts and organizations in just a few weeks as they prepared to take action, both internally and externally.
“Last September we looked around the room and said, ‘We can absolutely make a positive change on these issues,'” Isaacson told ThinkProgress. “We felt that was our responsibility.”
The league’s first step was to funnel resources to the NDVH, since its struggles to keep up with the influx of calls had become so public. The NFL dedicated $5 million a year for five years to the hotline.
The NFL also wanted to partner with an organization specifically focused on sexual violence, so experts in the field directed them to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. The league initially donated $1 million to the NSVRC, which was divided among 58 state and territorial anti-rape coalitions to help them deal with the increased volume at local hotlines, leaving less than $20,000 for each coalition.
For 2015, the NFL committed $2.5 million, in a combination of cash and in-kind donations, to the NSVRC, though all of that has not been given yet. The organization’s CEO, Delilah Rumburg, told ThinkProgress that the deal with the NFL will be a multi-year, multi-million dollar partnership and that going forward, she hopes to partner with the league on prevention initiatives.
Skeptics might see these donations as a PR move primarily intended to help the NFL repair its own image, but according to the people working at these organizations, the money had an immediate positive impact.
“Even if it is just PR, you see the trickle down effect,” Valente, who is now working full-time as the VP of policy at the NDVH, said.
Before the NFL’s help, the hotline was only able to answer 50 percent of its calls, chats, and texts. Now that number is up to 74 percent. Through the end of September 2015, the NDVH has answered nearly 82,400 more calls, chats and texts than it did in the same period of 2014. During that time frame, the hotline received about 50,300 more incoming messages than it did the previous year. While the hotline told ThinkProgress that the support from the NFL did contribute to this increase, it can’t directly tie back the specific calls, chats or texts to the NFL’s funding since all funding sources are co-mingled.
There are no current concrete plans for the NFL’s commitment to last longer than five years, but both parties are expecting the relationship to be a long-term one. “We’ve been very clear to the hotline that we’re in this for a long haul,” Isaacson said.
Last fiscal year, the NFL donated $4 million in cash and $1 million in-kind to the hotline, with the in-kind donations including items like Microsoft Surface tablets, office furniture, and web servers. This nearly doubled the hotline’s operating budget overnight — in 2013, the NDVH’s operating budget was only a little over $6 million.
The enormous increase in cash flow was a great gift, but also a huge undertaking for the hotline, which had to not only add advocates to answer phone calls, but the support staff — HR, administrators, data analysts — to handle the new hires and to make sure it was using the NFL’s money in the most effective ways possible.
Since government funding can’t be used for infrastructure, a significant portion of the donation is going toward physical expansion. Not only is the organization getting brand-new servers and technology that will greatly increase the efficiency of the hotline, but they are getting a new, bigger office in Austin next spring that will be able to accommodate the larger staff and allow room for growth in the future. The NFL money also went towards getting office space in Washington, D.C.
The new D.C. office is small, bare-bones and nondescript, but full of activity. A few advocates are stationed in a room together, engrossed in responding to chat and text requests on LoveIsRespect.org, the NDVH site dedicated to teenagers and young adults.
When they have hesitations over how to respond to a problem, or are unsure of what specific resource to recommend from their database of over 5,000 domestic violence and sexual assault organizations across the country, they ask each other, or reach out to other advocates, who are all available to each other online through group chats. The different time zone helps the chat-only line stagger hours more efficiently, and the NDVH hopes to eventually add phone services to its D.C. base.
Valente is stationed in an office next door, now able to devote all of her time toward influencing policy that will be beneficial to domestic violence victims and the hotline. Right now, she is working on using data from a survey the hotline conducted online to influence gun violence legislation. (Disclosure: the Center for American Progress partnered with the NDVH for this firearms survey; ThinkProgress is an editorially independent site housed at the Center.)
Valente is also focused on making sure federal privilege laws are rewritten to apply to internet and text technologies so that texts and chats with the hotline can’t be used against a victim in legal battles; and on advocating for the rights of local groups, the on-the-ground organizations and services that primarily make up the hotline’s database but didn’t get the NFL’s help, to receive the funding and training they need.
She’s clear that all of the work in the D.C. office is only possible because of the NFL’s contribution and commitment to the hotline.
“Everything is because of Ray Rice,” Valente said.
Domestic Violence And Sexual Assault 101
The league didn’t just consult experts on how to best help the domestic violence community as a whole, however. After the botched Rice investigation, it was clear that the NFL needed to educate itself internally, too.
The league had showcased a fundamental lack of understanding of domestic violence during the Rice case. First, Goodell interviewed Palmer and Rice together, and then only suspended Rice for two games — a lighter punishment than many players have received for a marijuana offense.
“I got it wrong in the handling of the Ray Rice matter, and I’m sorry for that,” Goodell said 11 days after the video was released. “But now I will get it right… We will get our house in order first.”
In order to get their house in order, Goodell and the rest of the NFL were faced with a tall order: Try to change the culture of a league that had largely ignored domestic violence and sexual assault in the past. Since experts in the field agree that education is a crucial component to prevention since so much about domestic violence and sexual assault is widely misunderstood, Isaacson and her team worked quickly to put together a program that, in speaking with ThinkProgress, she referred to as “Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault 101.”
The NFL administered the program to more than 6,000 league employees last fall, but it was widely panned — particularly by the NFL Players Association, the sport’s union, which was worried that the session addressed the players as perpetrators, and was too focused on punishment.
The league listened to the NFLPA’s complaints and this summer unveiled version 2.0 of the program, which was administered to the players during training camp. This upgraded training session included four 2-3 minute videos — three testimonials by people who had experienced or perpetrated domestic violence or sexual assault first-hand, and one video about DUIs. Each video was followed by a 10 minute question-and-answer session, intended to facilitate a more open discussion.
According to Isaacson, many clubs also invited local organizations to the sessions, and the league tried to publicize the NDVH, NSVRC, and the NFL Life Line, a 24-hour crisis line that the NFL provides to its players.
But Teri Patterson Smith, the deputy COO and special counsel of the NFLPA, told ThinkProgress that while the union was happy the league had listened to and addressed some of its concerns, she consistently heard from players that the NFL offered no way to follow up on these issues after the training sessions.
As a result, the union has been working on addressing these issues itself, adding routing to the NDVH from the NFLPA’s own 24-hour help line, and cultivating local resources that the players can utilize in their hometowns.
“Here’s the thing: We want to work together with the NFL,” Patterson Smith said. “We’re working with the same population and we want them to be stand-up guys. We want to prevent them from committing violence and from being the victim of violence.”
“But what you have to do is establish a relationship and a circle of trust with the players and their families,” she continued. “We have a close relationship with Off The Field, the wives’ association, and we also have meetings with the players sometimes when we’re in the team cities. If something does arise, it is us that they call. We don’t specialize in doing pop-up initiatives.”
Awareness Vs. Action
The most high-profile initiative the NFL forged last September was a partnership with No More, a “unifying symbol and public awareness campaign” aimed to end domestic violence and sexual assault. The league donated air time during games to the No More PSAs, which were produced by the Joyful Heart Foundation in partnership with Viacom.
The PSAs, which had already been running for over a year before the NFL partnership began, featured celebrities spouting out common excuses and myths about domestic violence and sexual assault — “Did you see what she was wearing?” “He just has a temper” — and concluding, well, “No more.”
Once the ads hit the NFL airwaves a few weeks into the season, the Joyful Heart Foundation started to hear from players who wanted to get involved. The nonprofit wasted no time capitalizing on this interest, setting up shoots in three different states over a 24-hour period on the players’ off day. The ads, featuring players such as Eli Manning, Jason Witten, and Antonio Gates speaking out against domestic violence and sexual assault, were shot, edited, and aired within a week. They were shown every week until the playoffs. Overall, the NFL and Joyful Heart calculate that the $40 million in donated air time led to a total of 3 billion impressions for these ads.
“You have to imagine, I’m doing this work for 20 years, this is the dream of all dreams,” Maile Zambuto, CEO of the Joyful Heart Foundation, told ThinkProgress. “We’ve been saying for 20 years that we need athletes involved, men involved.”
But perhaps because the NFL’s relationship with No More has been so visible, it has also been the most scrutinized.
In February, Deadspin’s Diana Moskovitz dug into the partnership and concluded No More was nothing more than a “sham,” simply a brand created to promote awareness of the issue that does no direct, on-the-ground work for survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault.
“These logos are an embodiment of magical thinking, promising that you can do good without having to actually do anything,” she wrote.
But Joyful Heart, a nonprofit started by longtime Law & Order: SVU star Mariska Hargitay that aims to “heal, educate, and empower survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse” sees the No More PSAs as an extension of their education initiative. To them, claims of merely raising awareness isn’t a critique — it’s the goal. The organization partnered with multiple corporations and groups — including the Department of Justice, Avon, Mary Kay, Verizon, Kaiser Permanente, and AllState — to create the No More brand.
“This has been our dream to create a symbol, a universal brand, a way for organizations to come under one umbrella to speak with one voice that together we can end domestic violence and sexual assault,” Zambuto said. “Our goal with No More is to reach bystanders, to reach those who are not otherwise engaged in these issues — especially men and youth.”
Still, as Moskovitz wrote, it’s unsettling that such a high-profile initiative doesn’t directly translate into action in a field that needs so much assistance on the ground. Experts agree.
“I think raising awareness is always a good thing for someone like the NFL, but of course we want to see more,” Rene Renick, VP of programs and emerging issues at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, told ThinkProgress. (While the NNEDV has talked with the NFL and Roger Goodell over the past year, it does not advise or partner with the NFL in any official capacity.)
“Domestic violence programs across the country have felt significant reductions in funding because of the economic downturn. We’ve been through a long period of time here where resources have gone down and request for services has gone up. That still hasn’t leveled out,” she explained. “We do a lot of advocacy with the states to fund that, but we’d love to see private funding, such as the NFL and sports teams, step up to the plate.”
D.C. Safe is one of the many organizations across the country dedicated to direct service work. Abraham Ahern, the strategic oversight manager, told ThinkProgress that the organization fills a gap for survivors by providing crisis services in the immediate aftermath of the incident — the most disruptive time in a victim’s life and the period in which they are at the greatest risk for a follow-up assault or homelessness.
The organization has seen a significant increase in calls over the past year, something that Ahern attributes both to increased awareness surrounding domestic violence and to an overall increase in D.C.’s crime rate. In the last 12 months, the hotline has answered over 10,000 calls and directly served over 6,000 survivors.
Somehow, D.C. Safe does all of that on a $1.8 million per year budget supplied fully through government grants. The organization has a cramped Intake Center housed in the D.C. Superior Courthouse. That center is a one-stop shop for victims and survivors in crisis situations, filled with students from local law schools, police officers, child support assistance, and victim-witness advocates from the D.C. Attorney General’s office. The center is also home to a small administrative staff and 16 full-time advocates who man a 24-hour hotline so that they can immediately assist anyone in need.
The organization also has apartments that it can place victims in around the clock. People can stay in the apartments for up to 30 days — a crucial service considering there’s a wait to get into many domestic violence shelters. However, D.C. Safe is struggling to maintain ownership of these apartments with such a limited budget and such a volatile real estate market in the district. On September 30, the lease on the shelter expired, and two of their units will have to be relinquished at the end of November.
“Education and outreach programs are important. My main criticism with the No More campaign is it seems to talk around the issue without actually tying it to official resources,” Ahern said. “It’s a little too indefinite. I really would love to see these big-dollar and high-profile initiatives reach out to the people on the ground. I’d love to see some more focus on the experience of survivors.”
While Zambuto defends the “undeniable” reach of the No More PSAs the NFL ran last year, she says that she and her team are in the process of strategizing how to take it a step forward and “turn visibility into engagement and action.”
Joyful Heart is currently partnering with Viacom to do research on bystanders so that they can create an effective “bystander tool” in their next round of PSAs. Zambuto said before they launch the next campaign this December, the team wants to make sure they understand what the community of people who aren’t currently engaged in domestic violence issues need to hear and how they want the content delivered.
So far in the 2015 NFL season, none of the No More PSAs featuring the athletes have been re-aired, although the NFL told ThinkProgress that those spots “continue to be available to any station in the country that requests them.” The PSA entitled “Listen,” which aired during the Super Bowl, was aired once this season by the NFL in non-sports programming leading up to the kickoff of the first game.
“We’re talking with the NFL now about what the future looks like,” Zambuto said. “We haven’t come to agreement on anything yet. But we are hopeful that they will continue to use their platform to convey these messages.”
“I don’t think [awareness is] the be-all, end-all. I don’t think it can singlehandedly fix this problem, but I do believe that one of the greatest, greatest obstacles we face in ending this is silence,” she added. “If we don’t talk about it then survivors will continue to get trapped in silence and perpetrators get a pass.”
Setting An Example
While the video evidence of the assault made the incident between Ray Rice and Janay Palmer the most infamous case of domestic violence in NFL history, it was far from the first case to come to the attention of commissioner Roger Goodell. Throughout his tenure, while Goodell racked up a reputation as a harsh disciplinarian, case after case of domestic violence perpetrated by his players went overlooked and unpunished. Of the 56 domestic violence cases that occurred on his watch before September 8, 2014, Goodell had only suspended those players for a total of 13 games.
These statistics led one writer to conclude, “Roger Goodell is a domestic violence enabler who must be stopped.”
It was clear that in order for the NFL to be taken seriously on issues of domestic violence and sexual assault, the league had to change the way it disciplined its own players.
So, using the advice of the 150 experts Isaacson and her team reached out to last September, the NFL updated its Personal Conduct Policy and formed a Conduct Committee to regularly review the policies.
This policy, which was unveiled in December 2014 wasn’t that different from the previous one, though it did give the NFL the authority to investigate alleged misconduct independently of the justice system; provide more counseling services for victims, families, and violators; increase the punishment for first-time offenders from a two-game suspension to six; formally make the commissioner’s exempt list (a status available for players in “unusual circumstances” that allows them to receive pay and remain under contract without being a part of the team’s 53-man roster) the destination for players under investigation; and ultimately put the final decision of every disciplinary action into Goodell’s hands. Goodell even appoints the committee responsible for appeals.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NFLPA has been unhappy with the new conduct policy from the start, even filing a cease and desist order to attempt to prevent the league from implementing it.
“The NFL is not fair or consistent in their doling out of the discipline,” Patterson Smith said. “We’re looking for due process and some sort of established protocol, and we want to protect our players from any overzealous NFL punishment.”
Of course, while the union is understandably concerned with protecting its players, many domestic violence experts wish that the league would dole out even harsher punishments to domestic abusers.
“A lot of people think of athletes as role models, so it’s important for them to set an example that violence against women isn’t okay,” Debbie Evans, the division chief of the Sexual Assault Center and Domestic Violence Program in Alexandria, Virginia, told ThinkProgress. “The NFL has to have a stance that it won’t be tolerated.”
While the NFL has gotten a bit tougher on these issues over the past year, the stances have been inconsistent. Seven NFL players have been arrested for domestic violence or sexual assault since September 8 of last year, and one player — Ahmad Brooks of the 49ers — has been charged with misdemeanor sexual battery. Of those, one was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list by their team; four players are still playing in the NFL right now; four players were released by their teams after the arrests were made — with two getting picked up by other teams soon afterwards; and only two have received a suspension from Goodell, for a total of nine games.
Both players suspended by Goodell for domestic violence or sexual assault arrests, Rodney Austin (six games) and Jonathan Dwyer (three games), are currently not on an NFL roster and are serving their suspensions as free agents. Austin, a former Detroit Lions guard, was found guilty in a North Carolina court on four misdemeanor charges — including assault on a female and assault on a child under age 12 — but maintains his innocence. Dwyer, a former Arizona Cardinals running back who was accused of head-butting his wife and breaking her nose after she refused his sexual advances, plead guilty to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor, and was sentenced to 18 months of probation.
In the past year, almost all of Goodell’s high-profile suspensions have been overturned, including the indefinite suspensions of both Rice and Adrian Peterson, who was indicted on felony child abuse charges last September, and plead no contest to a misdemeanor of reckless assault to avoid jail time. Peterson is back playing for the Minnesota Vikings this year, while Rice, who plead not guilty to third-degree aggravated assault and was accepted to a pre-trial intervention program for first-time offenders, has yet to be picked up by a team since the video was released.
Greg Hardy, who spent most of the 2014 season on the commissioner’s exempt list after allegedly throwing his ex-girlfriend onto a bed full of rifles and threatening to kill her, was suspended for 10 games by Goodell of the 2015 season. But after Hardy’s appeal, the suspension was reduced to just four games. Hardy, who appealed an initial guilty verdict by a judge and had his case dismissed by the prosecutor when the victim failed to appear in court to testify, re-joined the Dallas Cowboys this week.
“After a year, not much has changed,” Karin Roland, the organizing director of UltraViolet, the women’s rights activist group that aired an anti-Goodell ad online during last year’s Super Bowl, said. “Goodell’s efforts to fix the problem look shockingly similar to his long efforts to ignore it.”
32 Teams In 32 Communities
Last December, the NFL directed each team to form a Critical Response Team by the end of 2015 that is educated and trained to deal with crisis situations and to work with domestic violence organizations in their community.
Isaacson said that the league does not oversee this community involvement, though they did provide a list of local organizations to each team and ask for regular updates.
Experts told ThinkProgress that one of the most important things the NFL could do is support local programs through appearances and volunteering, money, and resources. The NDVH isn’t the only organization that received an influx of calls and requests after the Rice incident — most local shelters did too, and they need the assistance the most. After all, these are the places that the NDVH is directing its callers to, and it does no good if they show up and the shelter can’t accommodate them.
ThinkProgress reached out to all 32 NFL teams for an update on their club’s domestic violence initiatives, and heard back from 21 of them. The results were wide-ranging: The Pittsburgh Steelers had just hired a community relations manager, and she was meeting with the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, but as of September, nothing had been set up beyond that. The Washington team’s sole domestic violence initiative was a partnership with Fear to Freedom that involved the rookies assembling care packages for an hour and a half over the summer.
The Baltimore Ravens have strengthened the team’s relationship with a local shelter, House of Ruth, and a nationwide initiative, One Love, pledging hundreds of thousands of dollars between the two. The Minnesota Vikings have dedicated themselves to educating the players and their families through initiatives that go beyond the NFL’s mandatory training, while the Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks have formed strong partnerships with their state domestic violence coalitions.
Renick, who helps to oversee the state domestic violence coalitions as part of her work with the National Network to End Domestic Violence, wishes that more teams would partner with their local coalitions and invest resources into helping domestic violence victims on the local level, particularly since the NFL promised local support.
“I don’t know that that’s happened on the level they had hoped and we had hoped,” she said. “Considering the kind of pockets they have, they could do more.”
The individual teams have also continued to vary greatly when it comes to the vetting and tolerance of domestic violence and sexual assault — most commonly referred to by the teams as “off-the-field issues.”
Time and time again, NFL teams have demonstrated that they care a lot more about domestic violence when the player isn’t a star. Of the eight players involved in domestic violence or sexual assault incidents in the last year, three of the four who are playing in the 2015 season are established players — Bruce Miller, Junior Galette, and Ahmad Brooks. Meanwhile, bit players or unheralded rookies such as Justin Cox, Austin, and Dwyer, haven’t been given a second chance yet.
Then, of course, there’s Ray McDonald, who was given three chances by the league. The former defensive end with the San Francisco 49ers, was arrested under suspicion of domestic violence against his pregnant fiancee in August 2014. However, the prosecutor dropped the case, and McDonald remained on the 49ers for four more months, until it was announced he was under investigation for sexual assault in December 2014.
He was released by the 49ers at that time, but was then picked up by the Chicago Bears in March. They Bears were impressed with the fact that McDonald flew himself to interview with them and they heard good things from his former teammates and family members. They didn’t, however, hear anything from his alleged victim.
“An alleged victim, I think — much like anybody else who has a bias in this situation — there’s a certain amount of discounting in what they have to say,” Bears chairman George McCaskey told reporters while announcing the signing.
Just a couple of months later, McDonald was arrested on domestic violence charges again, and promptly dismissed from the team. McDonald — who has still not received any formal punishment from the NFL — was charged in July with domestic violence and felony false imprisonment stemming from the May arrest. In August 2015, he was indicted on one count of rape by a grand jury stemming from the December investigation.
The Bears weren’t the only NFL team who took the “don’t ask” approach to vetting potential talent. Jameis Winston was the overall No. 1 draft pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; even though he was part of a high-profile (and botched) rape investigation in his time at Florida State, the Bucs reportedly never reached out to his accuser in their “extensive” vetting.
The Seattle Seahawks were similarly selective this year in their investigation of their first draft pick, defensive end Frank Clark. The Seahawks didn’t reach out to any witnesses of his arrest on charges of domestic violence and assault — witnesses whom reporters were able to track down quickly after the draft.
At best, this shows ignorance by the coaches and executives in charge. At worst, they simply don’t care.
“You can take a good neighbor, employee, parent, or friend, but that doesn’t mean they’re like that in an intimate relationship. Nobody wears a sign,” Jennifer Wesberry of D.C. Safe told ThinkProgress.
“There’s a myth that batterers are always nasty, but that’s not the case. Batterers can be extremely charming,” Renick said. “If untrained folks are just talking to the batterer’s side, you’re only getting a part of the picture.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
As Domestic Violence Awareness Month kicks off this month, the NFL’s initiatives to address the issue remain a work in progress.
“I believe these things take time,” Joyful Heart CEO Maile Zambuto said. “Everything the NFL has done in a year is a meaningful first step.”
Over the past year, as the NFL’s attempts at justice and awareness have been executed to various degrees of success, other prominent sports leagues have found themselves in similar situations. MLB, for instance, moved quickly to enact its own domestic violence policies and prevention procedures in the wake of the Rice incident, telling ThinkProgress in April that this was not an issue they had previously been focused on.
The NHL, which hasn’t revamped its policies, has acted inconsistently; after suspending Los Angeles Kings’ player Slava Voynov in 2014 when he was arrested on domestic violence charges, the league has allowed Patrick Kane to remain with the Chicago Blackhawks as the star is under investigation for sexual assault. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver received praise for his strict and swift punishment of Charlotte Hornet Jeff Taylor when he was arrested on domestic violence charges last September, but the NBA and its Players Association still have work to do before the league policy is comprehensive and clear.
Even women’s pro sports leagues haven’t been exempt from scrutiny, with high-profile stars such as Hope Solo in the National Women’s Soccer League and Brittney Griner in the WNBA both arrested for domestic violence in the last year.
The legal system often isn’t any help to sports leagues trying to get it right. Due to a combination of shame, fear, and a mistrust of police, only around one in four domestic violence cases are reported. Of those, only three of the five cases investigated by police result in arrest, and in approximately one-third of the investigated cases, charges are never filed. The statistics are equally troubling in sexual assault cases; 68 percent of rapes go unreported, and only two percent of rapists will ever serve one day in jail.
What role the league should play in these matters is hotly debated and some observers have publicly questioned whether the NFL should be involved at all. Given its track record of arbitrary and inconsistent punishment, is the NFL really in the best position to decide how to regulate off-field behavior?
Nonetheless, expert after expert reiterated the same point to ThinkProgress: Domestic and sexual abusers need to be told that these acts are not going to be tolerated, and with its enormous platform and influence, the NFL can help send that message.
“Writ large, a huge problem with why domestic violence persists is because we treat it like it’s some exceptional category of behavior that we can’t influence. It’s not. We don’t do that with any other category of violence, but suddenly, when the victim is a woman, we can’t do anything about it,” Abraham Ahern of D.C. Safe said.
“Abusers, in my experience, learn very quickly that there’s zero consequence if their action takes place in a certain setting and their victim is a woman or a domestic partner,” he continued. “With no major public sanctions against the players who perpetrate these crimes — I think that it is absolutely an incentive to further violence.”
The NFL has made a commitment to this issue, internally and externally, for better or for worse. This month, No More is working with the league’s broadcast partners to educate them on the proper language to use when talking about domestic violence and sexual assault, and the education session that was given to players during training camp will be administered to front office staff members on the club and league level. NFL staff members will also hold an event with Safe Horizon, a domestic violence shelter, later this month.
But it’s noteworthy that throughout October, NFL players will don the color pink to signify Breast Cancer Awareness — not purple for Domestic Violence Awareness.
“There’s this undertone of victim blaming in the culture that makes it hard to rally around domestic violence as an issue,” Jennifer Wesberry of D.C. Safe said. “That’s why breast cancer is an easier initiative to support.”
“Can I just get one sports team to wear purple? That’s the dream.”