Small Steps Toward Changing the World: NFL Starts to Address Domestic Violence

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 30, 2014

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

If you think the NFL and domestic violence activists have an adversarial relationship, that they are uneasy allies glaring across the negotiating table and wishing the other would fold tents and go away, you are wrong.

'It is really important to us that people do not see the NFL player as only a purveyor of bad things. There are a lot of good guys out there. ...We want them to succeed on the field. But we want them to succeed off the field as well.' —Esta Soler, president and founder, Futures without Violence

If you think a "strong domestic violence policy" means imposing strict punishments, adopting some zero-tolerance language and declaring mission accomplished, you're wrong.

'Prosecution is the easy part of it. What I am talking about is prevention, education and training. That's really where you have an opportunity to have an impact on the lives of young men, to keep them out of the system by helping them make better decisions.' —Peter Harvey, former New Jersey attorney general, domestic violence advocate and NFL advisor

If you think the NFL is determined to do the bare minimum to address domestic violence, throwing some suspensions, money and lip service at the problem and hoping that it (or more appropriately, the attention of fans and media) goes away, you are wrong.

'We are so moved by the voices of the players coming forward. These are great guys. They're passionate; they're committed.' —Virginia Witt, director and co-founder, NoMore.org

'The commissioner is taking this matter seriously and is laser focused on this issue. He and his advisors are working very hard to be balanced but to make sure that they establish a process that ensures that women are protected and that abusers will not find a safe haven in the league.' —Harvey

'The NFL is taking a stand that we want to be part of the solution.' —Anna Isaacson, NFL vice president of social responsibility

If you think domestic violence is too huge an issue for the NFL to tackle, you are wrong. If you think public service announcements during NFL games are all talk and no action, you are wrong. If you think domestic violence is just an NFL problem, not all of our problem, you are wrong. 

The NFL is taking its first steps toward a stronger, more comprehensive, more effectual domestic abuse policy. Public service announcements featuring NFL players are now broadcast during games. The league will implement a new Domestic Violence/Sexual Abuse Workplace Policy in November, one of the first of its kind in the nation, that trains team and league employees on critical initial-response techniques. A coaching video on educating youth football players about gender violence and other character issues, with the NFL's imprint, will soon be sent to colleges and high schools across the country. It is all happening within days of Ray Rice's suspension appeal, an event that promises to underscore the NFL's sins of the past but which can also lay groundwork for a more productive future.

Domestic violence is a vast, complex problem, with issues that law enforcement agencies and advocacy groups still grapple to address. The NFL has an opportunity to create a model policy and spread an important message to the nation and world, both through its words and its actions. If the NFL takes domestic violence seriously, if it listens to its consultants and partners, and if it uses all the resources and influence at its disposal, the Ray Rice scandal could become a fulcrum for real societal change.

Those are three big ifs. The NFL has a lot of work to do if it wants to do what's best. But the league is already taking steps in the right direction.

Starting the Conversation

Talk to the domestic violence activists advising the NFL, and you discover as much about what they don't want as what they do.

They don't want scapegoats. They don't want to vilify. They don't want to label football players (or anyone else) as "potential perpetrators." They are not seeking throw-away-the-key punishments, though they advocate strict, consistent penalties. They are not seeking commissioner impeachment or the dismantling of professional sports leagues, nor do they seek unrealistic solutions.

Activists want to end domestic violence, of course, in all its forms, and they want the NFL and other leagues to address the issue more seriously and intelligently than they have in the past. Activists are also enlisting the NFL's help with two broad matters, one huge and one small.

The huge matter is nothing short of a change in American culture itself. Esta Soler, of Futures Without Violence and one of the many experts who has consulted with the NFL before and after the Ray Rice incident, calls it "normative change": a sweeping reform in the way all of us think about, talk about and respond to a subject that has been taboo for generations.

"Let's spend the majority of our time working on ways to prevent this," Soler said of the best approach to reforming domestic violence policies.

Anonymous/Associated Press

Joe Ehrmann, former Colts lineman, author, founder of Coach for America and frequent collaborator with the NFL on player character issues, speaks of "a massive reeducation of boys in America. We have to see sports as a tool for moral and ethical development of young people."

It's a tall order, even for the mighty NFL. But the Ray Rice incident, coupled with football's broad reach into our homes, schools and consciousness, could make this a turning point for our response to a major societal problem.

"What has happened, while so incredibly difficult, provided an inflection point, not just for the NFL but a broader cultural conversation that has crossed all sectors," said Virginia Witt, director and co-founder of NoMore.org.

The smaller matter is closely related to the huge matter. Advocates simply want to start a conversation, among men and women, families, neighbors and citizens.

"It's not just a women's issue. It's not just an NFL issue. This is an issue that affects the entire world," said Rachel Howald, creative director of the NoMore.org public service campaign.

Open dialogue—particularly a dialogue among men and among "bystanders," not just victims, perpetrators and women's rights activists—is a critical first step toward more tangible change.

The NFL has already taken significant steps to open that dialogue.

Speaking from the Heart

The players came forward of their own volition, and some even brought their own material.

The NoMore.org public service messages, featuring celebrities like Amy Poehler and Andre Braugher, have aired regularly since September 2013 on a variety of networks. The organization estimates the spots, which feature famous faces reciting familiar excuses for ignoring domestic violence situations in everyday life—"not my problem," "he was drunk," "why doesn't she just leave?"—have generated 500 million "impressions," or total views.

The NFL began discussions with NoMore.org before Ray Rice assaulted then-fiancee Janay Palmer last February. The scandal in the wake of the Rice elevator assault video obviously accelerated the conversation. The NFL began airing the celebrity PSA during games. Meanwhile, the league brought together NoMore.org and the Young & Rubicam advertising agency to assemble an NFL version of the campaign.

Eli Manning, Antonio Gates, D'Brickashaw Ferguson and other current players joined NFL executive Troy Vincent and retired players like Cris Carter in the segments, which began airing during NFL telecasts on October 23. But the players did more than show up and read from cue cards. The campaign is all about excuses, and many players provided new ones that were not in the script. Vincent provided "No more: He's just a bit of a hothead," an excuse that surely has a long history among players and coaches at all competition levels.

The level of personal investment among the players was high. "Before they came in as NFL players, they came in as husbands, fathers, and in some cases survivors, friends, relatives of survivors," said Howald, who helped write an initial batch of excuses, which has since doubled because of celebrity and player input. "They came in as human beings having experienced this issue."

The segments themselves set the tone for how domestic violence advocates approach the issue. Spreading the word and changing "bystander behavior"—getting all of us to take ownership of what is happening in our schools, neighborhoods and extended families—is an end in itself, not just a means to an end. "Despite the huge prevalence of these problems, people were still not talking about them," Witt said.

By using NFL players to speak to an NFL audience during games, NoMore.org not only delivers its message to millions of new viewers but to viewers who haven't seriously engaged in the domestic violence conversation in the past.

"This is a unity campaign," Witt said. "This is a wonderful sector to be talking to right now. It's very much heartland, it's very much families watching football together. That's very critical."

The message itself is stark and personal. Instead of condemning Ray Rice or some anonymous abuser, the campaign condemns the lazy excuses we all make. "These things are so ingrained in society that, creatively, we decided to put them out there and make people face the truth," Howald said. "These are things we all say and think, and they are part of what keeps perpetuating the issue and keeping it a taboo."

There is more to broad culture change than some public service announcements, of course. The NFL must go beyond sending Eli Manning into a television studio to read a few lines, and it is. The league is developing a domestic violence discipline policy which, ideally, will be clear, consistent, strict and fair.

Details of the discipline policy have not been formalized, and discussions are being kept under tight wraps. But activists and advisers can provide a glimpse of what a "best practice" should look like. The old "due process" deflection—itself an excuse worthy of the NoMore.org campaign—may soon be replaced by something more powerful and beneficial.

New Due Process

Until a few years ago, due process for domestic violence was not much of a process at all. For everyone from law enforcement to employers, and particularly for sports leagues, following "due process" was a convenient way of not doing anything at all.

"For a long time, cops wouldn't interfere in these cases, unless they didn't like the guy," said Peter Harvey, former New Jersey attorney general and Futures Without Violence board member who consults with both the NFL and other sports leagues on domestic violence policies.

Harvey paints a bleak picture of how law enforcement handled domestic violence cases as recently as a decade ago. Police on the scene might simply try to calm the assailant down or ask a couple to talk things out. If an arrest did happen, charges might not be filed; investigations were typically testimony-based, not evidence-based, and a lot can happen to change witness (or victim) testimony in the months between incident and trial.

"If you live in the home, if your economic life depends on his benevolence, he and his family and your family can talk you out of cooperating real fast," Harvey explained. "Next thing you know, you don't have a witness."

For prosecutors held to the beyond reasonable doubt standard for conviction, plea bargains and settlements were almost always appealing alternatives to costly, resource-draining, often futile jury trials.

Famous people, from football players to actors, were typically exempt from even this level of justice.

"In many jurisdictions, that superstar had a pass," Harvey said. "Forget about an arrest. You never read about it."

Under these conditions, it's no surprise sports leagues adopted a hands-off policy. The courts would handle the most severe cases, while the "process" would sweep just about everything else under the rug.

Harvey oversaw major reforms in New Jersey's domestic violence procedures, starting in 2004. Investigations became evidence-based: Photos from the scene and immediate statements from witnesses replaced testimony months after the fact. Counseling programs and improved medical practices kept victims from feeling stigmatized. And the "Hey buddy, settle down" response by police on the scene was replaced by something more effectual. "We had to retrain cops," Harvey said.

Modern domestic violence procedures have caught on around the United States, but that we are only a decade into the reforms explains, at least partially, why the NFL's approach to the Ray Rice incident felt so backward. Waiting for everyone to calm down and the problem to disappear was not only standard operating procedure in 1953; it was standard operating procedure in 2003.

Even with New Jersey's strengthened response and rules, prosecutors dropped criminal charges against Rice when the running back agreed to counseling. The criminal system will always be limited by time, resources and the cooperation of witnesses and victims. But employers are not bound by the legal system if they want to enact strict anti-domestic violence policies. In fact, any employer that receives federal money, including colleges and universities, is bound by the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 to do much more.

Harvey explained that federally funded institutions are obligated to independently investigate incidents of domestic abuse or sexual assault. The burden of proof in such investigations is preponderance of evidence, like a civil suit, as opposed to the reasonable doubt standard of a criminal case. The O.J. Simpson case provides a well-known example of the difference: Simpson was acquitted of murder but found liable for unlawful death. The less-stringent burden allows a federally funded institution to take disciplinary action that the legal system cannot.

Harvey could not comment on whether an independent investigation policy is on the table for the NFL; the process of revising the league's Personal Conduct Policy is ongoing, according to league sources. But any employer can adopt such a policy. The investigation can be triggered by anything from a police report to an arrest, allowing investigators to respond quickly instead of waiting for the slow wheels of the justice system.

Such a massive revision would almost certainly require some cooperation from the NFL Players Association, which is clamoring to apply checks and balances on the broad disciplinary powers the commissioner retains under the current Personal Conduct Policy. (The NFLPA did not respond to interview requests for this article). Policies like these are almost always collectively bargained in union negotiations. Adjusting the labor agreement would be difficult but not impossible, and may be in the best long-term interests of both a league and union that must both work to protect the integrity of the NFL and its players.

"A league should seriously consider following the path of private employers, and being a lot less deferential to what law enforcement authorities do because sometimes they don't act quickly," Harvey said.

An independent investigation system would not be foolproof, but it would eliminate the chaos of the last few months (with ever-changing suspensions and conflicting policies) and help create a consistent, comprehensible and expeditious process.

Discipline remains just one part, perhaps the easiest part, of a domestic violence policy. A quick response to a domestic violence allegation can do much more than make investigation and punishment easier—it can help victims, and even save lives. On that front, the NFL has already started to act.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 08:  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell holds a press conference on October 8, 2014 in New York City. Goodell addressed the media at the conclusion of the annual Fall league meeting in the wake of a string of high-profile incidents, inc
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Getting into a Better Place

Victims of domestic violence have historically been blamed or stigmatized. Even during the Ray Rice scandal, victims—from Janay Palmer-Rice to the thousands of unnamed women and families who suffer each year—have been sidelined in the rush to talk about suspensions, incriminating videos and cover-ups.

The NFL has already taken steps to better support those who need the most support. A new standalone Domestic Violence/Sexual Abuse Policy goes into effect in November. The primary goal is to standardize the NFL's response to allegations and incidents and to provide resources to victims as quickly as possible.

"The NFL always had people in place to facilitate resources" said Anna Isaacson, the NFL's vice president of social responsibility. "What we are doing now is really formalizing that structure and making sure that the communication is disseminated to all league and club employees."

The new protocols create both league- and team-specific Critical Response Teams consisting of human resource directors, security officers, player engagement directors and clinicians, as well as community domestic violence support services. The experts will be trained to do what law enforcement failed to do in decades past: get everyone involved in a potential crisis the help and information they need, fast.

"The critical response team's mission and focus is on providing resources and a safe environment, and getting people into a better place," Isaacson said.

The new standalone policy places the NFL at the vanguard of creating quick-response, victim-assistance procedures. According to the league, only 4 percent of institutions with more than 1,000 employees—from private businesses to governmental agencies—have in-house staff trained in domestic violence/sexual abuse response.

The Rice incident is so entrenched in our minds that it is easy to forget domestic abuse takes many forms, and most are more complex than a punch in a casino elevator. Violent incidents can extend across months or years, involve a variety of violent or intimidating behaviors, affect children or the elderly and can escalate until they are life-threatening. An immediate, thorough, victim-centered response can curtail problems before they spiral out of control.

Training and standardization of procedure can also make sure team employees, players and even the accused are on the same page. "There will be a process by which everyone will know who is to be contacted, what resources are available, who should be in the room, who should be contacted to offer assistance and that there's a small group of people who are trained who are communicating to make sure that people who are in need get the services they require," Isaacson said.

Family and victim support is yet another critical component of a long list of critical components Soler, president of Futures Without Violence, outlined for what would constitute an ideal domestic violence policy.

"It's getting the wives and girlfriends the supports they need," Soler said. "Getting the guys the supports they need. They also need to know the law, what's acceptable, what's not acceptable. That clarity also needs to be part of any overall program. The policy has to make sure it's not Sexual Assault 101 if an act is committed."

But advocates like Soler prioritize education and prevention just as highly as intervention and discipline. "It's not about 'Gotcha.' It has to be about accountability. Let's lower the arrest rate. That's what we're about."

Youth education is another area where the NFL has already started taking action, which, in the long run, can help eradicate domestic violence before it starts.

Football: The Last Classroom

Joe Ehrmann played in the NFL for 10 seasons and has given player responsibility presentations around the league for nearly a decade. He describes the players he meets each year as "high-character individuals" eager to do what's right. But he feels that these young men have absorbed some poisonous messages.

"You can tie just about every psycho-social issue back in this nation to the false concept of masculinity," Ehrmann said. "Every boy is fed all kinds of misinformation about masculinity and manhood in this culture."

Youth sports, or more precisely, what youth sports have become, are a big part of the problem. Ehrmann believes sports should be co-curricular, that football practice should be thought of as "the last classroom of the day." Too often, youth sports undermine the values they should teach, in part because coaches and parents focus on results instead of development.

"When we moved into this 'win at all costs' mentality, we lost our ball in the weeds," he said.

Ehrmann's Coach for America organization provides resources for youth coaches who want to not just win games but develop emotionally healthy young citizens. The NFL has extended Ehrmann's outreach in the wake of the Ray Rice scandal. The former player and the NFL collaborated on a 40-minute training video that will soon be sent to hundreds of college and high school football coaches around the country through USA Football and other networks. The video features Ehrmann and Troy Vincent, as well as Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin and other coaches discussing domestic violence, sexual assault and other serious topics with their teams.

The video is designed to make coaches more comfortable talking about a subject beyond their expertise, one that they might once have written off as beyond their scope or responsibility. "Coaches are not going to teach things they don't feel confident about," Ehrmann said. "And the Ray Rice situation revealed that all of America is uneducated and misinformed on issues of domestic violence."

Futures Without Violence promotes a program called Coaching Boys into Men that is similar to Ehrmann's Coach for America. Coaching Boys into Men provides resource packets for coaches at all levels. Soler's research confirms that these programs get results, from decreased dating abuse on campuses and in communities to better bystander behavior. "More male athletes [were] willing to stand up when they saw something wrong to say it was wrong" after participating in programs, according to Soler.

These youth resources are not bully pulpits or "scared straight" sessions that emphasize crime and punishment. They teach empathy and behavioral change, and they do so at a formative age and in an environment where negative behaviors and stereotypes can fester if not addressed. "You don't stop a problem by just focusing on the 20 and 25 year olds," Soler said. "You have to reverse engineer it."

For Ehrmann, domestic violence is just one component of a larger character issue for young boys, whose perceptions of manhood are often warped by messages of unemotional "toughness" until they begin to separate their behavior from their feelings. "Every man has to define himself," Ehrmann said. You can't let this culture define you. Every man has to define for himself what he's going to stand for, who he's going to stand with, and what he's going to stand against in life."

The NFL agrees, and the Ehrmann-Sumlin videos are just a first step toward a deeper involvement with youth football as an educational tool. "The short-term plan is to disseminate these videos to coaches so something can be done," Isaacson said. "The longer-term plan is to work on an umbrella strategy around character development: Start with youth football programs and then see if we can take these programs beyond youth football…so we can help build men of integrity."

Still Being Written

It's easy to be pessimistic about the NFL's dedication to addressing domestic violence in the wake of the Ray Rice incident. It's also easy to be skeptical about high-minded talk of "normative change" and making the world a better place through coaching videos and public service announcements.

The messy business of closing the door on the Rice saga and implementing real policy change is just beginning. There will be compromises. Not everyone will be satisfied. The Rice video investigations will likely bring troubling new allegations of NFL indifference or negligence, though all of the focus on the video misses the point. Society has turned a blind eye to domestic violence for generations. Harping on the Rice video is like blaming the last straw for breaking the camel's back.

If not for that video, this article might not be written, and we would not be having this conversation. Yet even without the elevator video, the NFL would still be taking steps toward improving its domestic violence response, prevention and discipline policies. The relationship between the NFL and advocates is not a shotgun wedding provoked by a public relations scandal. NFL executives were meeting with members of groups like Futures Without Violence, Coach for America and NoMore.org before the events of last February. The Ray Rice scandal accelerated events and pushed the NFL toward swifter, more determined action, but the NFL was never quite as blind or indifferent as it looked when it bungled the Rice situation. It was more unready than unwilling to respond appropriately.

Activists have worked hard to ensure that the NFL now understands the scope of the domestic violence problem and the need for a multi-faceted response that includes prevention, intervention, education, outreach and accountability components. The NFL has started doing some of the right things.

The league is certainly talking to the right people and using the right lingo.

"The NFL is taking a stand that we want to be part of the solution," Isaacson said of the league's overall goals. "We can be, not only by looking internally at the NFL family, but by broadening our horizons and looking at youth who play the sport of football, making sure that they are focusing on character development, that they are focusing on communications and on healthy relationships, so they can be the best men that they can be."

A domestic violence activist could not have said it better.

We will learn in the weeks to come just how thoroughly the NFL is committed to being part of that solution, particularly when the time comes to focus internally upon the family. Advocates are looking on with guarded optimism. "I think the story's being written," Soler said.

"The public is looking for them to get beyond the immediate crisis they are in, to the next step," Soler added. "I think and I hope that is the pathway forward. They do not want these guys to be confronting another story or arrest every day. We can change that. But you can't change it by not doing something comprehensive.

"I think it's really critical that a comprehensive program will be adopted. We're all watching."

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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