Imagine that you are a top executive in a major industry that also happens to be a cultural institution—you are a Roger Goodell type, in other words—and you want to address domestic violence in the most ineffective, superficial and counterproductive way possible.
We will address why on Earth anyone would want to do such a thing in a moment. For now, just imagine that’s your agenda.
You can’t just ignore domestic violence, mind you. That might damage the brand and undermine the no-nonsense, law-and-order image you strive to cultivate. Plus, there was that incident with the video two years ago. Can’t let that happen again. So you want to take a tough public stand, but for some reason, you want to make sure that it is nothing more than a tough public stand.
Lucky for you, there’s a proven game plan you can follow:
Trivialize the crime. Recast habitual, chronic abuse that spans months or years as an isolated moment of weakness or lapse in judgment.
Marginalize the victim. The folks in public relations will tell you that flat-out blaming the victim doesn’t market-test very well anymore, so it’s best to help the accused to control the narrative, handle the allegations with maximum skepticism and let public opinion follow the path of least resistance.
Be inconsistent. Consistency is your second-greatest enemy when purposely undermining your stated values.
Be evasive and secretive. Transparency is your greatest enemy.
Be authoritarian. Make victims of abuse seeking justice or relief choose between the health and welfare of their families and the judgments of a cold, ruthless, dictatorial institution.
Show little respect for privacy or confidentiality. Make victims of abuse also worry about which details of their lives will become the intellectual property of midday talk-show hosts if they cooperate.
Ignore the root causes of domestic violence. Don’t treat it like a complex spectrum of behaviors or a social ill with deep implications for families, neighborhoods and society. Remember: It’s just one more darned PR headache you have to deal with.
Scale your response to the media reaction, not the crime itself. It’s just one more darned PR headache, after all. No need to overreact when a minor player does something off camera.
Don’t bother rehabilitating or re-educating the perpetrator. Rehabilitation? What are you, some kind of hippie?
That’s a pretty thorough game plan. And if there is one thing the NFL excels at, it’s creating and following game plans. The scripted series of plays above is guaranteed to turn the phrase “We have zero tolerance for domestic violence” into more of those soothing nonsense syllables coaches and executives like to repeat, like “We are going to establish the run.”
With Josh Brown’s one-game suspension for a violation of the Personal Conduct Policy, coupled with the baffling memo justifying its decision, the NFL reset its domestic violence awareness to pre-Ray Rice levels. The league demonstrated that the only lesson it learned from the Troubles of 2014 was that if the league talks a good game and waits for the news cycle to simmer down, it won’t have to do anything messy like address domestic violence seriously, do the right thing or even follow through on its own half-hearted condemnations.
Brown was arrested for domestic violence assault in May 2015. The arrest was not publicized, but the NFL (to its minimal credit) learned of it and began an independent investigation, as per the Personal Conduct Policy revised in the wake of Rice’s domestic violence case. If Brown was found to be in violation of the Personal Conduct Policy—which does not require criminal charges or a guilty verdict—he faced a “baseline” six-game suspension, according to the Personal Conduct Policy. Supposedly. Theoretically.
Upon news of Brown’s suspension, the New York Daily News quickly obtained police reports, a pair of 911 recordings on consecutive days and a lengthy statement from Brown’s wife (now divorced) to a detective and court official detailing 20 violent incidents spanning six years. Brown pushed his wife into a door when she was pregnant, once shoved her into a mirror and threatened her numerous times, according to her statement.
The NFL claimed that it obtained none of this information. The victim declined to speak to league investigators, and apparently Daily News reporters are better at obtaining court documents than the NFL’s army of super-sleuths.
“Our investigators had insufficient information to corroborate prior findings,” the NFL wrote in its statement about Brown’s suspension. “The NFL therefore made a decision based on the evidentiary findings around this one incident [Brown’s arrest] as provided to us by the District Attorney.”
That decision somehow amounted to one-sixth of the “baseline” suspension, though the NFL failed to explain why. The Giants, who knew about the arrest and investigation when they signed Brown to a two-year contract this offseason, hid behind the NFL’s coattails.
“We support the league office in their decision and their stance on personal conduct,” Giants head coach Ben McAdoo said in a press conference. “I do support Josh as a man, a father and a player.”
Let’s examine just how perfectly the NFL followed its scripted game plan for making a mockery of its own policy and paying lip service to domestic violence:
Trivialize the crime. Brown referred to his arrest as a "moment” twice in talking to reporters, even though there are two documented 911 calls in addition to allegations of abuse that span years. Brown lied, in other words. But the NFL didn’t notice, and the Giants still stand behind him.
Marginalize the victim. The biggest howler in the NFL’s statement (which is full of them) came when the NFL claimed that “our investigators became aware that his wife had filed a statement with the county court alleging previous altercations between the spouses.” [Emphasis mine]. Domestic abuse victims don’t give statements about “altercations.” They give statements to the court about violent crimes, even if those crimes remain “alleged.” The defenders of the alleged abuser are the ones who recast shoving a pregnant woman as some sort of lovers’ tiff. It’s not hard to see where the NFL’s loyalties lie if “altercations between the spouses” was their idea of a neutral statement.
Be inconsistent. There is no language anywhere in the Personal Conduct Policy for reducing a “baseline six-game suspension” to a penalty shorter than even Rice’s initial suspension.
You could argue that the NFL had evidence of what its policy calls “mitigating factors” to lessen Brown’s sentence, except that the NFL issued an eight-paragraph statement emphasizing that it just couldn’t find any evidence at all either way.
Be evasive and secretive. The NFL’s official statement raises more questions than it answers. Predictably, no one in the NFL is making themselves available to answer questions.
Be authoritarian/Disrespect privacy. This is a big one.
One reason prosecutors have such a hard time prosecuting domestic violence cases is because victims are reluctant to testify for a variety of reasons. Some victims physically fear their abusers. Others fear loss of financial support. Some still rely on the perpetrator’s family and/or friends for everything from emotional support to childcare and feel like they already rocked the boat by finally dialing 911. Some just don’t want to put their children through the legal process or see their names in the newspaper when they are trying to rebuild their lives. They fear everything from retaliation to Facebook shaming to the wearying journey through protracted court proceedings, and then some.
If the judicial system looks bad, imagine how the NFL looks. This is the institution that mishandled the Rice situation until the elevator video was on a continuous television loop. It’s an entity that would shred Tom Brady’s reputation to win a point of procedure. It’s hard for any corporation or governing body to look more intimidating and less compassionate than the NFL right now.
The NFL must attempt to interview victims as part of its independent investigations, of course. But if its investigative procedure centers upon the cooperation of the victims, it a) guarantees that many investigations will fail and b) not so subtly shifts blame for those failures to the victims.
The NFL’s statement did exactly that with a patronizing bit of passive-aggressive self-justification:
“We understand that there are many reasons that might have affected her decision not to speak with us, but we were limited in our ability to investigate these allegations.”
If the NFL really understood, it would double down on efforts to obtain court documents, but the league has a bad case of alligator arms when looking for information it doesn’t want to see.
Ignore the root causes. Ms. Brown’s statements describe a textbook case of persistent domestic violence: a web of connected incidents and issues taking place across months and years. The NFL just wants to focus on that one arrest, thank you very much.
Scale your response to the media reaction. Brown would have been on the Commissioner Exempt List for over a year now if there were video of him refusing to leave the house until police grabbed his arms, let alone engaging in violence toward his family.
No rehabilitation/counseling. The only person who said that Brown was undergoing any sort of counseling for his issues was his victim. Ms. Brown said he underwent “intensive therapy counseling,” according to the New York Daily News account. Individuals who are taking anger management counseling seriously don’t usually brush off the consequences of their actions as “a moment.” There’s clearly no counseling-rehabilitation-evaluation component to Brown’s one-week suspension because there is no such thing as one-week, in-and-out therapy.
So the NFL did a great job following an awful game plan. Which makes you wonder where a game plan as heinous as this one comes from, and why anyone would ever want to follow it.
No, Goodell and the NFL do not hate women. They do not want society to crumble while they cackle from a hilltop and sell preseason tickets at full prices. The wealthy owners and powerful executives of the NFL, like wealthy owners and powerful executives everywhere, just haven’t embraced our 21st-century value system yet.
That game plan for brushing domestic violence off as no big deal used to be our national game plan. It was the legal system’s game plan. It was the police’s game plan. It was your neighbor’s and your pastor’s game plan.
Police used to respond to 911 calls by “cooling everyone off,” then driving away to leave the victim and attacker to “work things out.” The legal system made abuse victims feel like they were the ones on trial. Neighbors, cousins and in-laws made them feel like they were the ones tearing the family apart. Domestic violence was downplayed as “marriage problems.” Parents and reverends counseled victims to put up with it for the sake of the family.
We all condemned domestic violence in the abstract. But few people did anything about it, and our institutions made seeking help a steep uphill climb for victims. We only sprang into action when something horrible happened, something the community couldn’t ignore.
Sound familiar? That’s what the NFL did two years ago, and what it is still doing.
It’s still the game plan in much of the nation, and not in those shacks at the end of Dismal Swamp Road but on college campuses and in communities that hide some dark realities beneath the sheen of traditional values.
The only silver lining to the Rice incident and the Troubles of 2014 was the learning opportunity they offered. The NFL was forced to really see domestic violence, think about it and talk about it, as were all of us. The league consulted with experts, held meetings and revised policies. What an opportunity Goodell had to become a beacon of justice and hope—something he so dearly aspires to be—just by doing what he claims to do best: creating a stringent policy and requiring his subordinates to follow it.
Instead, the NFL learned to talk tough on the record but hide behind silence when it mattered. It learned that closing ranks still works. Worst of all, it learned that even the fiercest storm will blow over and let the league get back to football as usual.
These are the wrong lessons, but they are not factually incorrect. The Brown suspension and statement prompted a moderate late-week scorn-fest on Twitter. Then preseason action started and we all got distracted. The Brown suspension just became another NFL scandal, and not even the buzziest one. The idiotic Hall of Fame Game reimbursement brouhaha has gotten more attention. The NFL doesn’t think it can get away with this. It knows it can. Unless a video surfaces.
“Violence is learned, and it can be unlearned.”
Esta Soler, president of Futures Without Violence, domestic violence expert and advisor to presidents, prosecutors and sports commissioners, has told me that many, many times. We can learn to avoid abusive behavior, identify our triggers, defuse our own emotions, walk away instead of doing something regrettable, and we can teach our children to do it. We can learn better ways to investigate incidents, prosecute offenders, counsel victims, rehabilitate perpetrators and have a positive impact on the problem as employers, neighbors, families and voters.
The mighty NFL could then teach what it learned to the NCAA and to high school coaches, to major corporations and kids with Madden on their televisions and Fatheads all over their walls. The NFL has the power to change the game plan.
Instead, the league appears to have chosen ignorance. By its mix of crass double-talk and silence, it is preaching indifference. Instead of unlearning violence, the NFL is becoming desensitized to it.
The NFL will ultimately do whatever it wants, but we cannot let it anesthetize us.
So here’s what we have to do: Go back two years in your memory, to the time when you first saw Ray Rice punch his fiancee.
Remember how that made you feel. Imagine for a moment how a victim of domestic violence feels every single day.
Then, don’t stop when that angry, outraged, sad and sick feeling subsides. Don’t just tweet something moralizing and pithy or sign some meaningless petition.
Take the time to find resources about domestic violence—its many forms, its complex causes, its powerful potential solutions. Then read, ask questions, explore and read some more.
Let’s do what the NFL refuses to do: Learn.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.