How The NFL Plans To Change Its Culture

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Former New York sex crimes prosecutor Lisa Friel is a key part of the NFL's attempt to educate players and staff about domestic violence and sexual assault.

Anna Isaacson, with a bright pink breast cancer awareness ribbon pinned to her dress, darts in from a meeting with NFL community relations. Not long after, Lisa Friel, another new addition to the league's brain trust, ducks in a moment late after another meeting.

And once this meeting was over? More meetings.

Isaacson and Friel are here along with a group of recent hires by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Their goal: to clean up a public relations mess and to chart a new path, one that could possibly usher in cultural change when it comes to domestic and sexual violence.

Or at least that's the hope.

"Look what's coming out of this," says Friel, a former head of the sex crimes prosecution unit in New York. "Look at the motivation within the NFL and within the greater world to do something about this. So I'm hoping this will all bring a lot of good to an area that needs a lot of work."

Goodell said that when he initially gave Ray Rice a two-game suspension for punching then-girlfriend Janay Palmer, he hadn't solicited enough input from people familiar with domestic violence. He won't be able to say that anymore.

Isaacson and Friel are just two of the women with new titles at the NFL as the league tries to address an ongoing crisis of conscience. Isaacson is the new vice president of social responsibility, and Friel was hired as a consultant on the league's first domestic violence education program.

On this day, they are two of about 11 people in a conference room on the eighth floor of the NFL's plush Park Avenue offices. A few -- including domestic violence activists Rita Smith and Tony Porter, from A Call to Men -- join via telephone. Others, such as former player Dwight Hollier, now with the NFL's player engagement group, and Deana Garner, a lawyer and longtime NFL staffer, sit at the white glass table with the NFL logo in the middle.

They are trying to squeeze weeks of discussion about domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse into an easily digestible Power Point presentation for all 32 teams and their staffs. The group has whittled 28 slides down to 18 for the one-hour-long seminar that they will begin rolling out across the league as soon as possible (probably in less than two weeks).

The slides have headings like, "Warning signs of domestic violence," "What is physical abuse to a child?" and "Examples of sexual misconduct."

Hollier, the only one at the table wearing a bow tie, asks about a strategy for getting the message through to players. 
"As another league-mandated program, it's going to be resisted initially," Hollier says. "And that can be avoided if the head coach gets up and says a few words."

Garner chimes in, saying the key is to find allies within the locker room before any training program starts. She's already done some legwork talking to players, working to identify who might have a story they would share in that setting.

Porter points out that men tend to understand things better when they can relate to a person, rather than just be instructed.
 Heads nod.

There is a slide about what constitutes consent. Can consent be withdrawn? some wonder in the room.

Friel, the former prosecutor, has answers at the ready, from what is the legal standard to what is a common-sense standard.
 With the efficient forcefulness of someone who has argued her case before, Friel explains that consent can be verbal or nonverbal at each stage, and that you can consent to a kiss without consenting to more. "What were the signs they said yes," Friel says, "not the signs they said no."

She prosecuted cases for 30 years. And yet even she admits that she was shocked when she saw the video of Rice striking Palmer inside the elevator. Seeing something is just different, she says. It's why she once walked out of the movie "Boys Don't Cry," because even though she'd prosecuted rape cases and seen all the facts, she couldn't stomach seeing it acted out on the big screen.

Unlike the NFL's other human resources programs, this one may lead to some uncomfortable places. After all, this is a program that follows a player home from the club and asks, "Is she still saying yes?" That has to be fair game now, Garner says.

"This is what we do -- it's about education," she says. "This is no different than when I was a prosecutor talking to employees or police officers. Some of our employees happen to be players, but everyone can benefit from having information."

This is the situation the league is in after sponsors and fans balked in the wake of a two-game suspension for Rice, and after a storm of criticism was fueled by the subsequent arrests of Adrian Peterson on child abuse charges, and San Francisco defensive end Ray McDonald and Arizona running back Jonathan Dwyer for domestic violence.

Not everyone has been happy with the group that was initially assembled by the NFL. After the hires of Friel, Smith and Jane Randel, there was criticism that the group lacks people of color. On Friday, the NFL sent a letter to owners announcing they have hired Porter and African-American and gender studies professor Beth Richie of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Both are African-American.

The NFL wives group, Off the Field, had to send two letters to the NFL in order to be acknowledged after the first letter was lost. Dawn Neufeld, whose husband, Ryan, played for the Bills, made a fair point that they should have been involved from the outset. "If anybody knows what's going on at the front lines, it's the wives," Neufeld says.

NFL wives are often in unfamiliar cities and isolated from friends. They may have to give up work so they can move when their husbands change teams. This unique dynamic may intensify a relationship, Neufeld explains.

Isaacson says she has received the second letter, reached out, and the wives will be involved from now on. Friel notes that the NFL's domestic violence group has met with former players and players' parents in an effort to get input and buy-in on the issue, because this isn't the only time players will sit through the presentation. But this will be different from the rookie symposium, she says. "It's not enough to do this in the equivalent of freshman orientation," Friel says.

Which is why the meetings will continue long after this first presentation is underway.

"We see this as an incredible opportunity to make it right and do great things," Isaacson says.

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