Greg Hardy's first news conference after his suspension ended was a disaster. The defensive end, brought to the Cowboys after a conviction and procedural dismissal for, among other things, allegedly throwing his girlfriend on a futon covered in assault rifles and threatening to kill her, told the assembled media he planned to come out "guns blazing" and discussed the relative hotness of Tom Brady's wife, Gisele Bundchen, and her sister.
"I'm really disappointed in Greg's comments," NFL vice president of social responsibility Anna Isaacson said Thursday. "We can control what we can control here, and what we control is making sure we continue to educate our employees and our players, making sure we educate everyone in the NFL family about domestic violence, about violence and about sexual assault, and making sure we have the right resources in place to help victims and survivors."
Isaacson has spent the past year working to shore up the NFL's ability to engage players and the public on a range of issues, including domestic violence, sexual assault and drunk driving, but those efforts can be undermined by the way a high-profile case like Hardy's is handled.
Making Isaacson's job more difficult, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones heard Hardy's remarks and told Sports Illustrated's Melissa Jacobs, "Well, you're not allowed to have guns on the football field. We all know that's just a way of expressing yourself. I hope his guns are ablazin'."
This is an owner who brought in Hardy claiming the team would help to educate and rehabilitate him in the wake of a night of alleged violent abuse, yet he had Hardy's back on the Brady comments, too.
"When I saw him marry her, Tom went up in my eyes 100 percent," Jones said. "She's very, very attractive and it shows what an outstanding individual Tom is."
Huh. So where does a guy like Hardy get the idea that women are like a status symbol, like a possession? The NFL is filled with enablers like Jones, or broadcaster Mike Fisher, who continued the rally in Hardy's news conference by bringing up the relative attractiveness of Blake Bortles' significant other. (Fisher expounds on his reasoning here.)
Interesting explanation. But Hardy didn't appear to interpret it that way, making a quip about how appearance factors into his Pro Bowl voting. "Is she [attractive]?" Hardy asked. "This kind of information is important. That's how I select my Pro Bowls."
There are plenty of people who deny Hardy did anything wrong, but a court and the NFL's own investigation found him culpable. He was found guilty in one trial but the case was dismissed on appeal when Hardy, according to prosecutors, settled with the victim. The league imposed a 10-game suspension after investigating, but it was reduced by independent arbitrator Harold Henderson, who said the penalty was simply too much.
The NFL Players Association declined a request to comment on Hardy's remarks.
This year, the NFL has changed its front-facing strategy on domestic violence. After the Ray Rice video emerged last year, every NFL game contained a public service announcement produced by No More, an anti-violence umbrella group. So far this season, the NFL has aired breast cancer awareness ads and a series of marketing spots around the "Football is Family" theme. If last year the NFL and players were under scrutiny for behavior, these heartwarming spots look very much like an attempt to rehabilitate a damaged public image.
"I was disappointed I didn't see any No More ads in any of the games I've seen so far," said former National Coalition Against Domestic Violence executive director Rita Smith, who has worked with the NFL as an adviser on this issue and is interested in seeing how the NFL's commitment on the issue evolves now that the crisis is over.
"This was never about crisis management to me," Smith said. "I was looking for long-term, systemic change."
And that's the goal Isaacson has as well. She said the league has not moved away from the issue and more front-facing plans are in progress. She points to the league-wide educational program, a comprehensive model that reaches every league employee, not just the players and coaches. This season the league moved player education into training camp, to reach an 80-man roster instead of the limited regular-season one.
"The idea that we are backing down in any way or letting up is false," Isaacson said.
But in the wake of Hardy's comments and Jones' approval, it's easy to be disappointed in the pace.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said the comments had been addressed with Hardy, but that's a little like closing the barn door after the horse got out. The Cowboys should have been talking to Hardy the entire time, which is what Charlotte Jones Anderson, the Cowboys' executive vice president and chief brand officer, seemed to suggest would happen.
"The experts have told us it is far better to provide a way out, coupled with educational and rehabilitative services and therapy," Jones Anderson told the Dallas Morning News in March, when the Dallas mayor criticized the Hardy hire. "That does more to protect the victim and prevent future violence than a zero tolerance policy. We have to trust the advice of the experts. I embrace that."
That statement sure made it seem as though experts and therapists might be involved in Hardy's tenure with Dallas, but if they have they haven't seemed to make a dent in his thinking. Asked about what he learned during his suspension, Hardy flicked the questions away with platitudes about how happy he is to be a Cowboy.
Raising the idea of rehabilitation with Hardy and then having him come out and say what he said makes a mockery of the real work Isaacson and her group are attempting to do. The league is still working closely with the National Domestic Violence Hotline to serve women and men who have been abused. But putting Hardy's dismissive words on the NFL official website, with the league logo and a pink ribbon -- as Fox's Katie Nolan so admirably noted in this "Garbage Time segment" -- speaks a lot louder.
When commissioner Roger Goodell addressed the media during the owners' meeting on Wednesday, he said he hadn't seen Hardy's remarks.
"But we have high standards in the NFL and we expect people to follow them," Goodell said. "And as I mentioned earlier with the statistics, I think the players are. I think the biggest news to the effect that we're seeing is that the vast majority of NFL players are outstanding young men. They do great things in their communities. I'm proud of what they do. They're good family men and they're people that we should all be proud of. That's what we're trying to highlight, are the people that are doing things right."
He's absolutely right, but it's a little early to turn that into the 2015 ad campaign. The NFL still has a lot it needs to get right on the issue, including getting owners like Jones on the same page when it comes to discussing these issues like a grown-up. There is progress. Goodell said player arrests are down, though Isaacson cautioned it was too early to draw any conclusions just yet.
The league is working for change, but it's easy to be cynical. There are a lot of obstacles still in the way -- notably, a 6-foot-4, 278-pound defensive end in Dallas.