October was Domestic Violence Awareness month, but if the only media you consume is NFL football, it’s understandable if you missed it. After all, the most prominent discussion of domestic violence during the month focused on Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, who was suspended six games by the NFL for domestic violence at the start of the year. And most of that conversation centered on the NFL’s botched investigation and punishment of Elliott — he was on the field throughout October as his suspension was delayed by the courts, due primarily to a lack of transparency by the league’s front office.
That all seemingly came to an end this week, when a federal court in New York denied the NFL Players Association’s request for a preliminary injunction, thus all but ensuring that Elliott’s six-game domestic violence suspension will begin this week. (The NFLPA continues to fight the ruling, but I’ll spare you the minutiae, and just say that it’s a long shot.) (UPDATE: Two hours after publication, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals granted Elliott’s request for an administrative stay. His case will be heard by a three-judge Second Circuit panel next week; their decision will decide his fate for this season. In the meantime, he will be eligible for this Sunday’s game. Sometimes long shots go in.)
On the surface this is a victory for the NFL, but it’s not necessarily one that will inspire a lot of confidence in the league’s ability to adjudicate incidents of domestic violence; while there was plenty of damning and disturbing evidence against Elliott uncovered during the NFL’s investigation, this wasn’t a case in which there was clear video of the assault, like there was when Ray Rice punched his then-fiance in the Atlantic City elevator almost four years ago. And because the NFL prevented the investigator—who interviewed the victim four times—from expressing her doubts about the victim’s credibility directly to commissioner Roger Goodell, and then prevented the NFLPA from gaining access to interview notes or the victim herself during the appeal process, there are legitimate reasons to question the trustworthiness of the NFL’s process.
After Ray Rice, commissioner Roger Goodell famously proclaimed he would “get our house in order” when it comes to the handling of violence against women. Three years later, ThinkProgress, which has extensively reported on the league’s domestic violence initiatives over the past two years, checked back in on how things were going, and found that while there are undeniably some good things happening behind the scenes, this is still a league that often prioritizes public relations at the expense of true progress.
The problems with punishment
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones — not exactly a neutral party, it must be said — called Elliott’s six-game suspension an “overcorrection” to the league’s notoriously lenient two-game suspension for Rice. While that might seem like a convenient narrative, the truth is, the league’s record of doling out punishments for violence against women over the past three years can hardly be described as tough.
While the NFL did introduce a minimum six-game suspension for domestic violence or sexual assault after Rice, Elliott is only the third player to be suspended the full six games (out of approximately 20 players who have been investigated for allegations of violence against women during that time) according to a detailed investigation by Bleacher Report Magazine this summer.
The primary reason for this? Well, it’s complicated. No really, that’s actually the problem here — violence against women is a particularly complex category of crime to investigate, litigate, and punish, because it typically occurs in private, the victims often don’t want to cooperate, and there is such a cloud of secrecy and shame involved. The NFL, which decided to start investigating all allegations independently after the Rice incident, ultimately realized that their power and influence didn’t prevent them from hitting the same road blocks that law enforcement does — in fact, it sometimes accentuated those road blocks.
Right now, many victims simply don’t seem to trust NFL investigators. Tiffany Thompson, Elliott’s accuser, worked with the NFL reluctantly, and thanks to the NFLPA’s appeals, has watched her photos, text messages, and intimate details of her personal life splatter all around the media, while Cowboys fans viciously attack her online and lawyers publicly question her credibility in courtrooms. Other victims left feeling like the league met with them just for show, or were outright ignored.
“I’m very unlikely to recommend to any accuser I represent in future allegations against an NFL player that she cooperate with the NFL,” Gloria Allred, who represented two women who accused former Cowboy C.J. Spillman of rape, told the NY Daily News last year. “It’s not just a waste of time. It’s participating in a sham. It’s making the victim relive the trauma all over again.” (Spillman was convicted of the 2014 rape in 2016, and is currently spending five years in prison. He’s been out of the league since the end of the 2014 season, but has not been formally suspended by the NFL.)
Time after time, confusion and selective enforcement has reigned — ‘what evidence does the NFL need to see in order to suspend players for violating the collective bargaining agreement due to violence against women’ remains an unanswered question, for instance. And what exactly does a player have to do to warrant a full six-game suspension?
Former Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel wasn’t suspended for domestic violence the first time he was investigated by the NFL for assaulting his girlfriend; a few months later, he abused the same girlfriend in a similar, albeit escalated, matter, which led to him being indicted on assault. Manziel hasn’t been in the NFL since, though also hasn’t been formally punished by the NFL for domestic violence, though he has been suspended for four games by the league for substance abuse issues. Last year, Josh Brown, former New York Giants kicker, was only suspended for one game before details of his horrific and repeated domestic violence against his ex-wife were made public in the media. Almost a year later, citing “new evidence,” the NFL suspended Brown for six games, even though he is an unsigned free agent who hasn’t been on a team since last October.
Those inconsistencies, combined with the fact that teams continue to draft players with significant histories of violence against women, make the NFL’s house look messier than ever.
Making a difference behind the scenes
After Rice, and with great fanfare, Goodell formed a league-wide “Social Responsibility” team, manned by women, to officially “implement consistent and thoughtful responses to societal issues by educating the NFL family, instituting transparent league policies, and actively engaging with communities to positively impact society.”
The team’s stated goals are to educate NFL players and staff about sexual assault and domestic violence, and partner with organizations who are focused on helping victims and raising awareness for these issues. This is where a sincere effort on the part of the NFL is the most visible.
The league’s educational program has evolved over the past few years, but it typically involves a video presentation given to teams and staff members during training camp. In 2016, it educated over 6,000 NFL employees about alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault. This season, the league decided to focus on “healthy choices and healthy masculinity” for the presentation — and even went to an unlikely source for assistance: Ray Rice. Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s senior vice president of social responsibility, told ESPN that Rice would tell players about “the journey he’d been on and the choices that led him to his series of bad decision that led him to where he is now.”
While controversial, there is some logic there — perhaps it will help players to hear advice from a peer, from someone who knows what they go through.
For awareness and advocacy outside of the NFL, the league turned to three groups: the National Domestic Violence Hotline; Raliance, a coalition of non-profit organizations working to prevent sexual violence; and the “No More” campaign.
The NDVH is the first organization that the league partnered with, primarily because it saw such an uptick in calls after the Rice video became public. The league donated $5 million a year over five years to the hotline, funds which helped the organization add staff, move into a bigger office in Austin, Texas, increase its ability to help those in distress through text message and internet chat, and open up a small office in Washington, D.C.
“We’re still not where we want to be as an organization,” Katie Ray-Jones, President of the NDVH told ThinkProgress. “Most days we answer 80-85 percent of our contacts, and we want to move that needle to at least 90-95 percent.”
But Ray-Jones says she is incredibly pleased with the ongoing relationship with the NFL, and that she hopes it will continue after the five years are up. She’s been especially pleased that the NFL financed and provided air time for a NDVA PSA, which aired on the NFL Network and NFL.com in 2015 and 2016, and was aired some on CBS and Fox this year.
Meanwhile, last year, the NFL announced it was giving $10 million over a five-year period to fund Raliance, a partnership between the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence. To date, the organization has used the money to provide $1.3 million in grants to 41 organizations. Additional grants, totaling $600,000, will be awarded annually.
Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility, says the grants are focused in three topical areas—services to survivors, research and assistance for people who may commit sexual harm, and organizational or community level prevention initiatives. “We are thrilled to see all the positive work that both the [NDVH] and [Raliance] have accomplished,” Isaacson told ThinkProgress via e-mail.
But one of the NFL’s most high-profile domestic violence partnerships has been noticeably absent the past couple of seasons — there have been no more “No More” PSAs on the airways, and the league has not funded any more PSAs featuring players. The absence of those commercials was particularly striking during Domestic Violence Awareness month, and both the Joyful Heart Foundation, which developed the campaign as part of NO MORE, and the NFL told ThinkProgress there are no immediate plans to work together again.
“Joyful Heart continues to work with individual players who are engaged on advocacy around ending domestic violence and sexual assault, or have a personal connection to those issues. In particular, we have welcomed Giants player Mark Herzlich and his wife Danielle to our Board of Directors,” the Joyful Heart Foundation said via e-mail.
“We did air some of the NO MORE spots last year during the lead up to Super Bowl on NFL Network, and we continue our relationship with them,” Isaacson said. “In fact, one of our four DV/SA advisors is the co-founder of NO MORE, so we are most definitely still in touch with them and are kept updated on their important work.”
Priorities and perspective
So, what are the takeaways? Honestly, the state of the NFL’s domestic violence initiatives are not that much different than they were in 2015 or 2016: A work in progress whose future success is anything but guaranteed.
The league deserves praise for some of its work with the NDVH and Ralliance, and for its attempts at educating NFL employees about violence against women. But its financial contributions — which ultimately add up to one year of Goodell’s salary, split up over a five-years span — seem less impressive when compared with the tens of millions of dollars the league is spending fighting court cases that are more about preserving its power over players than they are about protecting women.
Ultimately, the NFL’s punishments need to be more consistent and transparent. Awareness campaigns on the league’s biggest platforms should continue to grow and evolve year after year, not fade into the background. And the league as a whole should be more proactive about using its visibility to start conversations about how to end violence against women, rather than merely pushing forward its behind-the-scenes work in moments of crisis in order to garner some good PR.
But perhaps that’s asking too much of a professionals sports league. For now, I’ll just hope for an October where domestic violence is in the NFL news because of its awareness campaigns and charity initiatives, and not because of the NFL’s mishandling of yet another domestic violence case.
This post has been updated to reflect the latest news about Elliott’s court case, as of November 3, 2017, and to clarify the Joyful Heart Foundation’s relationship with the NO MORE campaign.