It’s been three years since Ray Rice punched out his then-fiance Janay Price in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino, and over two and a half years since video of the incident was released and promptly led to front-page headlines about the NFL’s tone-deaf response towards violence against women.
Since then, certain corners of the league have worked hard to improve its image in this category. The league has given significant contributions to high-profile domestic violence and sexual assault programs, provided air time for anti-violence public service announcements, revamped its personal conduct policy, and invested in educating players, coaches, and executives about domestic violence and sexual assault.
The league isn’t doing all of these things because they’re the right thing to do — rather, it desperately wants the public to believe that it cares about women.
But if you found yourself giving the league the benefit of the doubt, the 2017 NFL Draft held this past week should put an end to that.
Multiple players who have faced allegations of sexual assault or domestic violence were drafted, and despite the NFL’s purported educational efforts, team coaches and executives displayed little-to-no understanding of the complicated nature of domestic violence and sexual assault when speaking to the press about these decisions.
Below, ThinkProgress looks at the draft selections of four of these players — Gareon Conley, Joe Mixon, Dede Westbrook, and Caleb Brantley — and at another telling moment between an NFL head coach and a girlfriend of a player.
While talk about violence against women in the NFL has increased dramatically since Rice, progress seems to be getting further away.
Gareon Conley, drafted 24th overall by the Oakland Raiders
Last Tuesday, reports surfaced that Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley was under investigation by police in Cleveland for an alleged sexual assault.
On Thursday night, he was picked in the first round by the Oakland Raiders.
Because the allegations surfaced so close to the day of the draft, many details have yet to be disclosed. What we do know is that a 23-year-old woman alleges that she met Conley in an elevator at a Cleveland hotel on April 9, and that after going back to Conley’s room where an orgy was taking place, Conley “grabbed her, ripped her pants off and raped her, then kicked her out of his hotel room after she declined to have a foursome,” according to a police report. She went to the hospital for a rape kit, and spoke with police there.
Conley vehemently denies the allegations, and others who were in the hotel room back Conley’s account. A tape has surfaced suggesting that Conley and the alleged victim actually met in the bar, not the hotel elevator as she told police.
The investigation into these allegations are still very much ongoing though, and that didn’t seem to bother Raiders General Manager Reggie McMenzie, though.
“We did our due diligence throughout this whole process,” McKenzie said. “We trust our research, reports, everything that we have on Mr. Conley and we feel really good about picking Gareon Conley and having him join the Raiders team and having him being a great teammate for our players.”
Raiders coach Jack Del Rio told reporters that the Raiders were “fortunate” to get Conley late in the first round.
McKenzie added that the team did “miles and miles of research to make sure we were totally comfortable with our decision, which we were.”
I don’t doubt that the Raiders made a few phone calls, but it’s hard to imagine that the team did “miles and miles” of research considering the allegations only surfaced the week of the draft.
Raiders coach Jack Del Rio told reporters that the Raiders were “fortunate” to get Conley late in the first round. Yes — thank goodness for rape allegations to send a player’s draft stock plummeting, right? Thank goodness a woman underwent an invasive rape kit and now faces the public scrutiny that so often follows anyone who make such allegations. What a wonderful break for Oakland.
The team could have said that it took the allegations seriously, but due to the research they’d been able to do felt it was worth taking a risk on a player of Conley’s caliber. They could have said that they would cooperate fully with the ongoing investigation, and that if the allegations ended up being true, they would follow the league’s disciplinary procedures. That’s not what they said, though.
Peter King of The MMQB reported that he talked with McKenzie about Conley after the draft, and followed that up by asking him about the great running back Marshawn Lynch coming out of retirement to join the Raiders.
“Ain’t nothing gonna top Marshawn Lynch coming back home! Beast Mode’s in Oaktown,” McKenzie told King.
It seems the Raiders are hoping that the excitement around Lynch’s comeback overshadows any blowback they get over drafting Conley. Why address a problem when you can simply distract from it instead?
Joe Mixon, drafted 48th overall by the Cincinnati Bengals
Joe Mixon was the most high-profile abuser heading into the night.
In 2014, he punched a woman in the face in a restaurant and ended up being suspended for the entire 2014 football season by Oklahoma. He pled guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge, and reached a civil settlement with the victim earlier this month.
Last year, a gruesome video of the punch was made public by Mixon and his attorney after a court ordered its release.
“He gets an opportunity to move forward and write his script from there on.”
The Cincinnati Bengals ended up selecting Mixon in the second round, and the team made their decision all about second chances.
“He gets an opportunity to move forward and write his script from there on,” coach Marvin Lewis said on Friday night.
In an anonymous survey over past week with all 32 NFL teams, only four said they would consider drafting RB Joe Mixon. But only takes one.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 29, 2017
Mixon was very emotional after the draft, and he’s certainly saying the right things when it comes to establishing a support system in Cincinnati and helping the community.
“We’ve done all of our due diligence we can do, time spent interviewing people, everybody around him, everybody around his background, people that have coached at Oklahoma for insight regarding him and how he has carried himself since that day,” Lewis said. “I don’t know who isn’t disgusted with what they saw. But that’s one day in a young man’s life, and he’s had to live that since then and he will continue to have to live that.”
But neither Cincinnati nor Mixon has been outspoken about what that support system will entail, and if it will include domestic violence intervention training. And while the Bengals said they interviewed many people in Mixon’s life, they did not mention if the victim, Amelia Molitor, was contacted at all.
Dede Westbrook, drafted 110th overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars
Former Oklahoma wide receiver Dede Westbrook has been accused of domestic violence by the mother of his children multiple times, although he has never been charged or arrested.
“In 2012, Westbrook was accused of throwing the mother of two of his children to the ground,” Tulsa World reported. “In 2013, Westbrook was accused of biting the same woman’s arm and punching her in the face with a closed fist.”
On Saturday, the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Westbrook in the fourth round.
Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell defended the pick to reporters, according to statements provided by the team.
“I think we all have been accused of things, not all of us, but many of us have been accused of things,” Caldwell said. “We don’t take it lightly.”
Caldwell’s comment was the most dangerous and misguided one of the draft. First of all, most men have not been accused of violence against women, and second, statistics say that the overwhelming majority of women who make formal allegations of assault are telling the truth. So the first part of his statement — that “many of us have been accused of things” — directly contradicts the second part of his statement.
While there haven’t been any new allegations of domestic violence against Westbrook in four years, there is no indication he has undergone any domestic-violence focused therapy programs at all.
The details of the allegations against Westbrook are horrific. In 2012, after shattering a window out of anger because the mother of his children wouldn’t let him inside, when she opened the door Westbrook “grabbed her by the arms, threw her to the ground and told her, ‘Don’t you ever do that s- — to me again.’”
“I think we all have been accused of things, not all of us, but many of us have been accused of things.”
Tulsa World also reported that in 2013, police were again called to apartment where Westbrook and the mother of his children were arguing. The woman told police that Westbrook bit her on the arm and punched her in the jaw with a closed fist, and an officer noted that there were bite marks on her arm and it had begun to swell.
The police report adds that Westbrook told officers that, “(the woman’s) arm swept across his teeth, and that’s how the marks got on her arm.” Westbrook also told police he was “grabbing (the woman’s) face to push her away from him.”
But according to the Jaguars, the past is the past.
“The charges were dropped,” Caldwell said. “There were no charges, never evolved into anything — 2013 was the last one, so we felt like that stuff was behind him.”
Caleb Brantley, drafted 185th overall by the Cleveland Browns
Just two weeks ago, Florida defensive lineman Caleb Brantley was charged with misdemeanor battery for knocking a woman unconscious after striking her in the face.
On Saturday, Brantley was drafted by the Cleveland Browns with the first pick of the sixth round.
According to the police report, the woman admits that after Brantley called her crude names, she hit him first, but Brantley’s use of force “far exceeded what was reasonable or necessary” and was “clearly out of retaliation and not self-defense.”
The woman, who was 187 pounds lighter than Brantley, had a tooth knocked out and needed a root canal after the assault.
The Browns executive vice president Sashi Brown told NFL Network that the team did meet with Brantley and look into the charges, and added that the allegations are “concerning.”
“This may not be something we can get comfortable with,” Brown said.
One league source told me of #Browns Caleb Brantley: "A coach at school told every team he talked to 'stay away even if undrafted.'''
— Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) April 29, 2017
The concerning thing about Brown’s statement is that it means that even after reading that police report, the Browns think they could be comfortable with Brantley’s actions. Sashi Brown did not go into detail about what it would take for the team to become comfortable with Brantley, and whether any domestic violence intervention program will be a part of that process.
Remember — the Browns are the team that kept Johnny Manziel on the roster after his ex-girlfriend told police officers in October 2015 that Manziel “pushed her head against the glass of the car” and “hit her a couple of times in the car.” Though his girlfriend at the time did not press charges, she did tell officers – and she could be heard on a police scanner saying – “ I’m in fear for my life.”
“This may not be something we can get comfortable with.”
Both the Browns and the NFL looked into those allegations and didn’t find them worth punishing. Just months later, Crowley told police that Manziel “told her ‘shut up or I’ll kill us both’ after forcing her into a car, hitting her, and dragging her by the hair.” That time, a Dallas County Grand Jury indicted him on a misdemeanor assault with bodily injury charge. He eventually reached an agreement with prosecutors to dismiss the charges if he meets agreed-upon conditions for a year.
In other words, the Browns have first-hand experience dealing with the fact that domestic violence is rarely an isolated incident, and they went ahead and drafted Brantley anyways.
Each time a player with an abusive past comes into the league, there is a chance for teams to recommit themselves to education and advocacy and raising awareness for victims. But it doesn’t happen.
Second chances can be earned. Rehabilitation is possible. But it takes a lot of work, and it takes a support system that has a good grasp of the challenges that you are facing.
Due to the lack of understanding of violence against women displayed this weekend at the draft, it’s hard to believe any NFL team can properly provide that.
There was a telling moment in Peter King’s MMQB column on the draft. Reuben Foster, a player who has been surrounded by “character concerns” due to an argument he had with a hospital worker at the NFL combine and a diluted urine sample, which the NFL treats as a positive test.
New Orleans coach Sean Payton called Foster on the phone, thinking he would end up drafting the player (Foster ended up being drafted by the San Francisco 49ers before the Saints had a chance to draft him). During their phone call, Payton asked to speak with Foster’s girlfriend.
“I was like, okay, I gave her the phone. You know, you don’t want to argue with no head coach. You respect them! So I gave her the phone and I was just nervous and scared just thinking about what they were talking about,” Foster said. “But all he was saying was is she gonna be that guidance and that person and make sure I don’t get in no trouble.’ This I heard after the fact.”
Women are too often ignored when they reach out for help privately; demonized when they come forward with accusations publicly; and yet are seen as responsible for their partner’s behavior.
The NFL only cares what women have to say when it benefits them. The proof is in the draft.