Speaking of Women's Rights: Flag on the Play:Off-the-Field Violence and the NFL

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Flag on the Play:
Off-the-Field Violence and the NFL

By Josh Bam

Domestic Violence Awareness Month began as a day in 1981 and evolved into a week-long observance soon after that. The first Domestic Violence Awareness Month occurred in October of 1987, the same year the first national domestic violence hotline became available.

This year, Domestic Violence Awareness Month comes at a revealing time in American history and women’s rights. One particularly visible series of events should be the starting point as we reflect on our fight against domestic violence.

It began with the Rice incident, where Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punched his wife in an elevator, knocking her unconscious. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell initially responded by suspending Rice for two games, but increased the sanction once a video of the assault became public. The increased punishment was indefinite suspension and termination of his $35 million contract.

Oh good, then it’s all sorted out.

Wrong. Even before this incident, the NFL had a long history of leniency when faced with domestic violence charges and convictions. Rice only received a strong penalty because his crime was caught on tape and released to the public.

Goodell and the League as a whole came under fire for the mishandling Rice’s punishment. The pressure led to a flurry of moves that seemed focused at saving the NFL’s reputation. In a letter from Goodell to league owners, Goodell made it clear that domestic violence and sexual assault “have no place in the NFL and are unacceptable in any way, under any circumstances.” He also introduced a new policy—six-game suspension for a first offense and a banishment of at least a year for a second offense. The letter then outlines a plan for League personnel to undergo training on the risk factors of domestic violence.

Less than a week later, the NFL was tested on its ability to follow-through with its new policies when San Francisco 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald was arrested on felony domestic violence charges. Under the League’s personal conduct policy players don’t have to be convicted of a crime to be disciplined, so McDonald was allowed to play the following week while the case was investigated.

The NFL also made substantial donations to domestic violence resources—including the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which says phone calls to the hotline spiked after the Rice incident—and hired two new consultants. Tony Porter, who works with A Call to Men, a violence prevention organization, and Beth Richie, a University of Illinois at Chicago gender studies professor, will begin working on a new domestic violence education and prevention policy for the NFL.

Policies and education only tackle one part of the problem. We also need to engage in open dialogue about the current culture of domestic violence complacence and what we can do about it.

In a self-penned essay for The Players Tribune, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said, “This issue is much bigger than NFL suspensions. Domestic violence isn’t going to disappear tomorrow or the next day. But the more that we choose not to talk about it, the more we shy away from the issue, the more we lose...For those of us in the NFL, there’s no excuse for violence off the field.”

While increased awareness isn’t the entire solution, a spotlight on the NFL and a public conversation about domestic violence needs to happen. We face a culture of leniency and blissful ignorance and to make progress requires open dialogue about real issues. This is the month those conversations should start.

More than one-third of women in the United States (approximately 42.4 million) have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime. If you or someone you know is a survivor of physical, mental, sexual, or emotional, domestic abuse, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or visit TheHotline.org.

For help in Washington, you can reach the Washington State Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-562-6025. Self-help legal resources for domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking victims are available in the Tools to Help You section of the Legal Voice website.

Josh is an attorney in Seattle who works on a variety of corporate, business, and tax law issues. He also writes and edits for firms and nonprofits in the Seattle area and thoroughly enjoys preparing taxes with United Way of King County Free Tax Preparation Campaign. Josh currently serves as the Secretary for Seattle Select Attorneys Association and is involved in a few projects with Legal Voice’s Self-Help Committee. He is committed to working on access to justice and accessibility of the law issues.

Photo courtesy of babyknight.