Domestic Violence And The NFL: What Impact Has The League Made?

Since the Ray Rice case exploded, Roger Goodell has been in a constant backpedal to deal with public outcry. The good news is Goodell & Co. have taken critical strides to help raise awareness and take action against domestic violence. Getty Images/USA Today Sports

In September, as backlash against the NFL hit an all-time high, commissioner Roger Goodell announced ambitious, new measures to raise awareness about domestic violence. He pointed to the Super Bowl as a good time to evaluate the league's action plan. What did the NFL do? What's working? What isn't working? espnW takes a comprehensive look at the answers to those questions.

In September, Lisa Friel was hired by the NFL as a consultant. She has a brash matter-of-factness honed by more than a decade as a Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor. Although she isn't formally in the league's hierarchy, her credibility and directness have made her a key voice on the decision-making team that constructed the league's new personal conduct policy.

All of that means she has spent a lot of time with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The same Goodell who for years wrist-slapped players guilty of domestic violence, until a massive public relations disaster unfolded on his watch last summer. The same Goodell who thought a two-game suspension was sufficient for Ray Rice, a player who punched his wife in the face and rendered her unconscious.

Friel is a big part of the NFL's new commitment to "get it right," and she has been working alongside the guys who have admittedly been getting it wrong all along.

But Friel is adamant that despite now being on the league's payroll, she senses a genuine commitment on behalf of the league. Goodell has been in meetings with everyone from players' family members to domestic violence awareness groups. And Goodell doesn't just pop in for 20 minutes; he stays for the full two hours, according to Friel.

Some of those meetings are a flight away. For a recent meeting with a domestic violence awareness group, Friel recalls that Goodell and a few others flew in and hopped on a return flight immediately afterward.

When they boarded to head home, Goodell gathered everybody. "The commissioner goes, 'OK, let's talk about what we just heard,'" Friel says. "We rolled our eyes and said, 'Give it a rest. We're tired!'"

You don't have to be much of a cynic to think none of this would have happened if the NFL hadn't botched so much, so badly. But even critics have to acknowledge that the NFL has dedicated time and funds to educating and disciplining its own staff on domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault, and in the process, it has become a national clearinghouse on domestic violence.

For advocates who have toiled for decades to raise public consciousness, the NFL has provided a beacon that could ultimately advance the domestic violence awareness cause by years. The league has received 5,000 pieces of correspondence on the issue, mostly from groups or individuals who want to help or partner with the league, according to the new vice president of social responsibility, Anna Isaacson.

"It may take us some time, but we will respond to every one," Isaacson said.


This summer, Goodell pinpointed the Super Bowl as a time to re-evaluate the NFL's domestic violence efforts.

Based on interviews with more than 15 people inside and outside league headquarters, Goodell seems to have achieved many of his biggest goals but has also had a few misfires along the way. (See a quick report card here.)

Let's start with the complicated business of policing and disciplining player conduct.

One of the loudest critics of the new code of conduct policy, which includes paid leave for players who have not yet been convicted of a crime and NFL investigations that run parallel to legal ones, has been the NFL Players Association.

The NFL didn't want to collectively bargain the new policy (the NFLPA had given the league dominion over the policy in the 2011 CBA), so Goodell & Co. took the liberty of dramatically expanding the scope. The league set up a conduct committee and introduced the concept of paid leave for when a player or staff member has been charged but not yet found guilty.

The NFLPA filed a grievance Jan. 22, and associate general counsel Heather McPhee, a key figure in the aftermath of the Ray Rice incident, said the union isn't done pushing back.

"The union will be taking certain actions to address it," McPhee said. "We agree that it's totally different, and it's been imposed, and we have legal mechanisms to address what we see as the problematic aspects of it and the way that it was done."

Players and the union were particularly rankled by the message Goodell sent by not reaching out to the NFLPA to work together. The long-running, bitter narrative players hold about Goodell is he works for the owners and puts player interests down the priority list as he makes authoritarian decisions. So excluding the NFLPA in this process did not go over well.

"We argued both publicly and privately that it should have been collectively bargained, and that was not done or taken into account," NFLPA deputy managing director Teri Patterson said.

Patterson and McPhee point to last year's overhauled drug policy as an example of when working together netted an agreement from both sides.

"We agreed this was the process, and interestingly, there has not been one appeal, and we've had positive drug tests," McPhee said. "Our joint efforts have now yielded a really terrific, joint process, and that's what we would have hoped for in this as well."


Has the NFL culture changed?

This fall, Deana Garner was at an NFL club helping lead one of the league's anonymous sessions on domestic violence awareness. The NFL's director of player engagement and education had gone through her slide show and taken questions when a hand went up in the back of the room.

Garner said he was an older man, a staff member on one of the teams, and he told the room that when he was a boy, his mother had been killed by her husband. His story was haunting and impactful, Garner said, as he recounted how that moment shaped everything else about his life -- being a boy, husband and now a grandfather.

"I was speechless," Garner said.

There were tears in the room that day, and Garner said that as she traveled, there were other deeply emotional stories of people who experienced abuse as children and still bore the emotional scars. She has found men and women of all ages ready to launch with ideas and action. For example, one NFL coach's wife has been full of ideas to help engage on this issue, and two cheerleading squads have reached out to local domestic violence groups to see how they can help drive funding and awareness.

So Garner has a firm answer when asked whether the league's culture has changed. "I believe it has," she said.

That shift has meant that, for the first time in league history, difficult, complex conversations are being held about rarely addressed topics.

One of those topics: the definitions of masculinity and femininity. Garner helped produce an educational video for coaches that was framed around former NFL player Joe Ehrmann and some of the talks he delivers for his Coach for America anti-domestic violence group.

In the video, Rocori High School football coach Mike Rowe talks to his team about "false masculinity" and how the idea of conquest has supplanted honor in some cultural corners. Considering the NFL trades on the idea of toughness, this is a challenging discussion to have.

"Having conversations about masculinity is important," Garner said, "because if men can't talk to boys about masculinity, I'm not sure who will do that."

Not everyone who sat through the information session thought it was helpful. One NFL player's wife, who asked not to be named, attended a family session and said she didn't think a presentation on one or two subjects would fix the problems in front of the league.

"Cleaning up NFL culture is about way more than the issue in front of us," she said.

The NFL is in an interesting spot; getting into the business of character development is tricky stuff. There is a lot of talk reminiscent of male gallantry, and the idea that womanhood is sacred, and women should all be treated with the reverence afforded one's mother. Rowe used the classical Greek references to honor and virtue, concepts that don't get a lot of play in popular culture, unless you're watching "The Godfather."


The NFL unveiled a new code of conduct policy in December and didn't have to test drive it with the first incident; the San Francisco 49ers cut defensive lineman Ray McDonald immediately after what was McDonald's second incident of the season. When the Indianapolis Colts linebacker Josh McNary was charged with rape the week of the AFC championship, he was moved off the roster and onto the commissioner's exempt list, a kind of paid leave.

Is this progress? Roughly 10 months after Ray Rice knocked his then-fiancee unconscious in an elevator and four months after a video made the public realize how lightly the NFL has taken domestic violence, almost everyone interviewed for this story agrees there has been real change.

The league's new code of conduct policy allows it to investigate an arrest before the legal case plays out and put a player accused of a felony on paid leave until the NFL has enough information to determine whether the alleged act is a code of conduct violation.

Friel said the investigation phase is designed not to penalize players but to protect them.

"As we beef up the policy and the discipline is beefed up, there will be a better investigation, a more expert investigation," she said. "You will be better protected, just as the victims will be better protected. But if you are the target of someone saying something that is untrue, these expert investigators are going to protect you from that, so you're better served by this new policy as well."

In December, former Syracuse quarterback and longtime gender equity activist Don McPherson was in New York to accept an award from Vital Voices for his work in the area of domestic violence.

How big an effect has the NFL had? Well, McPherson accounts for the "almost" in "almost everyone" who thinks the NFL is making an impact.

"I hate to be the cynic, but I don't think it has," McPherson said. "And the reason why I don't think it has is because we're still talking about Roger Goodell and the NFL and not Ray Rice punching Janay Palmer in the head, and that was OK for him to be back on the field. When I started doing this work 20 years ago, we were following the white Bronco, and everyone thought the domestic violence world was going to change. And it really hasn't."

The truth is McPherson isn't just playing devil's advocate. The new code of conduct policy, which mandates at least six games for an infraction such as child abuse, sexual assault or domestic violence, is an attempt to change attitudes well after they have been set.

"I think the conversation that the NFL is having on the punitive side, all it does is further criminalize the players in the league," McPherson said. "It doesn't address the core issue of men's violence against women, which is the culture of masculinity and men that leads to misogyny and sexism and the overall notion that women are less than, which is very much a message that comes out of a lot of language in sport. And until we address those core issues, the problem will continue, and all the NFL is going to be creating [is] a criminal state in their league."

The irony, McPherson noted, is that what got the NFL moving on the issue wasn't so much its own recognition of a problem -- two games? -- as sponsors such as Bud Light and Pepsi being uncomfortable with the league's inaction.

"All the sponsors objectify women and continue to use women and women's bodies to sell their products and glorify the kind of Man Cave, tough-guy, narrow masculinity that's associated with the game," McPherson said with a laugh -- without actually finding it funny.

As much as Bud Light finds domestic violence contrary to its core values -- that's important because of the statistical correlation between alcohol and domestic violence -- it still uses that narrow view of masculinity to market its products.

"It's all about the male experience," McPherson said.


The day the Ray Rice interior elevator video went public, in September, the National Domestic Violence Hotline's call volume shot up 84 percent, and its website buckled from the traffic. It hasn't recovered. In the months since, the daily call volume is still double the norm, and roughly 20 percent of the calls to the center can't be answered with current staffing. That's including the 40 people the NDVH hired with a $5 million grant from the NFL.

Domestic violence advocates are unanimous in saying the NFL's resource injection has been huge, but awareness and action are still not at levels necessary to combat what is an ongoing national crisis.

The NDVH hosted the NFL at its headquarters in Austin, Texas, and CEO Katie Ray Jones gave Goodell a rundown on the good (improved resources) and the bad (still not enough to deal with the sheer volume of cases). Jones, who is well aware of the cynicism about the NFL's virtually overnight interest in domestic violence, found a captive audience that day with Goodell.

"We saw the commissioner visibly moved," Jones said. "This was not just about PR."

That characterization of Goodell and his involvement was echoed by other leaders in the anti-domestic violence community.

Many of these organizations saw their funding ebb during the financial crisis and be cut during the congressional sequester. In September, when the NFL decided to tackle the issue, it was the first major source of new funding to hit the space in years.

But with the new spotlight on the issue comes new challenges. The NDVH refers 13 percent of callers to shelters and local programs -- and many of those were strained well before the number of calls more than doubled.

"It's a constant triage," National Network to End Domestic Violence president and CEO Kim Gandy said. "Trying to figure out who is in the most danger, who they can serve and who gets that last bed."

The stakes are high. Jones said the advocates taking calls have to be prepared to answer legal questions, address concerns about children and find out how much danger the men and women are exposed to. Recently, there have been calls from people wondering if they might be perpetrators of domestic violence.

"From a hotline perspective," Jones said, "it's important for us to have the right tools available."


The domestic violence community is looking to advance the conversation. Katie Hood heads up the One Love Foundation, which was given $400,000 from the Ravens to take its education program into every high school and college in Maryland.

One Love is named for lacrosse player Yeardley Love, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, George Wesley Huguely V, while they were students at the University of Virginia. The Ravens opened the team facility to One Love and dozens of educators in January for a presentation of a short film, "Escalation," which shows college students many of the signs that identify relationship violence. One Love hopes to eventually distribute the film throughout Maryland.

That's one shining example of a team taking real, tangible steps to combat domestic violence. A bigger question that will take years to answer: Can the NFL and its funding make a difference in the long run, or has it just unwittingly raised awareness of an issue by tripping into it?

There are a dozen tendrils -- self-protection and genuine concern being just two of the most obvious. The NFL's real report card on this issue won't be ready for a few more years.