I was set to write a column on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Then the phone rang. It was Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president of football operations—and one of the point men in the league's fight to regain its respectability in the wake of mishandling domestic violence cases. After listening to Vincent, everything changed.
In parts of our conversation, Vincent got extremely emotional. It sounded at times like he was crying, but I didn't want to ask because his words were so passionate, and I didn't want to interrupt him. In several instances, his voice raised to the point that he was practically screaming.
More than anything, Vincent was right.
To be clear, a union should fight for its members, and that's what's happening. It's also false to say that's all a union should do. A union should also be in the business of trying to make certain its members don't knock out women in elevators. That is also true.
Vincent's main message, also legitimate, is this: The union, and in fact many of us, is focusing on the wrong things. We're focusing on due process (highly important) or the union's right to collectively bargain (also important), but we're not talking enough about one thing: the victims. Seems obvious, but much of the focus hasn't been on them. In fact, we hear little about them, or when we do it's in the context of how their accusations affected the careers of their abusers.
The union says it has indeed looked out for victims. A spokesman for the union said the organization asked the NFL to be part of the union's commission on domestic violence and make it a joint effort back in September. The NFL, the union says, declined.
Vincent's words are important because we have never had a high-ranking NFL official—ever—speak so passionately and forcefully on behalf of victims. Not Goodell. Not the union. Not teams. None of them. Vincent's words, in many ways, are a first. They aren't lawyered or layered. They're honest.
When you read what Vincent says, keep in mind that while he doesn't mention the union directly, that is exactly what he's talking about.
"We are caught up in this 'us versus them,'" said Vincent. "Can we for five minutes think about the kid (Adrian Peterson's son)? Can we think about all kids who have to go through that? Can we think for five minutes about the woman (Janay Rice)? And all women who have to suffer through that? For five minutes?
"Forget what's negotiated. What Article 46 is. For two minutes even, can we think about the victims instead of egos? All I hear is about Adrian Peterson. Well, what about his son? Can we think about that?
"Imagine for a second if that was your child or your wife or your daughter. Drop the egos at the door. Think about the community for once before thinking about yourselves. For two minutes? Just two minutes. Think about who was attacked. Think about the survivors. Just two minutes. That's it. That's all I ask.
"Think about the families for once. I don't see them (the union) doing that. I don't want to hear about redemption (for Ray Rice or Peterson). Not someone's career. I don't want to hear about how someone feels they need to be back on the field playing. I want to talk about the families affected by domestic violence. Can we do that? Just two minutes. Two minutes is all I'm asking."
Then, again, speaking of the union: "'Oh, we weren't treated right.' What are you talking about? I have yet to hear a person (from the union) talk about the victims. I'm still waiting on that."
And you know what? I think Vincent is correct. All of us have focused on the mechanics of the new policy and the union's often legitimate complaints about not being a part of its composition, but the main problem about all of this has been all sides ignoring the voices of the victims. The media, the union, initially the NFL.
It's rare to hear an NFL official speak so bluntly on this subject, but it's good because at least a portion of the league isn't just covering its own ass for once, soaked in procedures and excuses. The NFL—in part because of public pressure, yes—has reached a transformative moment.
In the past, it didn't care enough about the victims of domestic violence. This is undisputed. Now the league does.
The union and NFL remain extremely distant. Actually, that's not it. The nearest star system to Earth is distant. The union and NFL are galaxies apart. The two sides despise one another. There is a level of hatred not seen since the strike years.
The union—and again rightfully so—is of the thought that Goodell, despite his reduction in power, still has too much, and that hatred between the union and NFL is due to the NFL's refusal to negotiate.
George Atallah, the union's executive director for external affairs, told the ESPN show Mike & Mike on Thursday:
We know we've had issues with misconduct this year. But those issues haven't caused the outrage. The outrage has been a result of the league's mismanagement between point A, which is an incident of misconduct, and point B, which is a disciplinary outcome. The road between those two has been all over the map, it's been inconsistent, it's been arbitrary and I don't understand a world where the league would unilaterally try to impose something without the player input and feedback.
Vincent, during a conference call this week, angered the union when he said, "People who don't like discipline are those who commit a criminal act."
Atallah on Thursday responded, telling Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com Live:
It doesn't even warrant a response. I mean, that's one of the dumbest things I've ever heard. That doesn't even warrant a response. I don't even know how you could come up and say that as a former union president. The facts are way different than what he's portraying them to be, and it's really, really disappointing that somebody's who's in that position, as a former player, would say something like that. ... Talk about antagonizing the majority of our players who do good things in the community, do great things off the field, and he's out here saying that players who want a fair process are only perpetrators? I mean, what is there to say? It goes to show you the heart of how they view players in general and, frankly, it's despicable.
The union focus has overall been on these things: procedure, semantics and the NFL won't talk to us. And, again, it's not unfair.
Yet Vincent is also correct. I don't hear enough people talking about victims—past and possible future ones. Again, here is Vincent, and again, while not mentioning the union, he's certainly talking about it. "I would ask critics," he said, "'when is the last time you visited a domestic violence shelter? Or really looked into how awful child abuse is?'
"I would say one thing about all of this: I think the league is in a better place now. We are in a better place because we are looking out for the victims and survivors."
Finally, the NFL is. Finally.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.