The NFL is taking inventory. After a massive backlash to a light two-game suspension for Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, the league is soliciting advice in anticipation of a systematic overhaul of its approach to domestic violence. An announcement of a new policy could come as soon as next month.
When those changes come -- and based on my reporting, I think the NFL is serious about it -- many in the domestic violence community would say two things.
First, thank you. It's an important step in recognizing the league's role in leading the conversation on domestic violence.
Second, be loud about it. Don't dump it at 5:30 on a Friday afternoon or during the second quarter of Green Bay at Seattle on Sept. 4. "I want them to make a big deal about it," said Gretchen Tome, a Baltimore resident and former counselor at a shelter for abused women and their families. "I want them to make a big announcement and say, 'We don't tolerate domestic violence.'" Tome and other advocates want the public to know that the league was listening to all the men and women appalled by the NFL commissioner's lax two-game suspension for Rice.
The next question is, can NFL commissioner Roger Goodell actually make good on that policy overhaul? The answer is yes. Goodell can institute this change unilaterally through the personal-conduct policy, or he can involve the players' union and try to negotiate it into the collective bargaining agreement.
So far, that second piece hasn't been broached. An NFL Players Association source tells me that the league hasn't reached out to it. League spokesman Greg Aiello declined to comment on the report and offered, "We are always looking to evolve and improve our policies and programs on all issues."
It would be powerful if an at-odds union and league could come together and put this in the CBA, which isn't as far-fetched as you might think. But if not, Goodell needs to issue a mea culpa after being so tone-deaf on Rice and put standards into the personal conduct policy effective immediately.
"It says a lot about a person when they can say, 'We made a mistake,'" said Judy Kluger, executive director of New York-based Sanctuary for Families. "If I were their PR person, that's what I'd be advising them to say."
So what should a new policy -- or really the NFL's first policy -- look like?
Kluger, a former judge in New York City and prosecutor of domestic violence cases, said the NFL should start with a zero-tolerance policy after a player is found guilty of a domestic-violence-related crime. This policy should take effect right away, so that Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, who was found guilty Tuesday of assaulting a woman, and others with pending cases are subject to discipline after their cases play out in court.
As the NFL works to take leadership on the issue, soliciting opinions from experts in the field, Kluger also said the league needs to work with domestic violence prevention groups like hers, or A Call to Men, to educate not only players but also coaches and league officials who too often have equivocated in the wake of an arrest.
"The NFL is a big organization," Kluger said. "They should have a domestic violence policy like they have a sexual harassment policy."
Hopefully those conversations are happening as I write this.
Tome understands that domestic violence isn't something people like to think about. "Don't be a buzzkill," she's been told. "You're taking away from the escapism of the game."
Yet that kind of avoidance of the issue leads to the lack of understanding that the NFL exhibited in its reaction to Rice's situation.
A strong statement from the NFL and Goodell would go a long way toward telling fans that this matters. As of right now, Goodell's most recent public comments came at the Hall of Fame in Canton. Why only two games?
"We have to remain consistent," Goodell said. "We can't just make up the discipline. It has to be consistent with other cases, and it was in this matter."
The whole response has forced advocates to take to online petitions. Tome started one two years ago asking the NFL to take domestic violence issues seriously, after Kansas City player Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, before killing himself. She started another petition, for Change.org, after Rice was arrested, and it has 67,000 signatures. "People don't look at it as a crime; they look at it as a relationship issue," Tome said. "But it is a crime, and an issue of power and control."
Becky Bond, vice president of CREDO, has another, similar petition with more than 81,000 signatures, and she'd like to see something happen before the start of the NFL regular season.
"Goodell has discretion in these matters," Bond said. "He needs to stop treating smoking pot as a more serious offense than beating women."
The NFL knows that "consistency" argument fell flat, especially if it meant that future instances of domestic violence would be dealt with less harshly than infractions like marijuana, DUI or other assaults. The NFL is listening, and that's progress.
Now the league needs to act. Rice was arrested in February. There are NFL fans torn between their teams and disgust over the message the NFL is still standing behind.
Bond asks what that would look like in October, with the NFL decked out in pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. "This is going to continue to be in the conversation," she said.
It's a conversation the NFL can change and thereby start rebuilding trust with its fans. Few players will ever be subject to the increased penalties that come with a new domestic violence policy, but it will mean a lot to fans like Bond and Tome and to the thousands who have signed their petitions.
It's time for the NFL to admit its mistake and forge a new path.