Sooner than any of us expected, it seems as though NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's new rules of domestic violence having no place in the NFL are about to be tested.
As information surrounding San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald's felony domestic abuse arrest begins to unfurl, the actions of the commissioner and the league will be under microscopic scrutiny not seen since, well, the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Rice was caught on surveillance cameras dragging his fiancée out of an elevator.
It's funny how news cycles work. Twenty-four hours after news broke of Goodell's letter to the 32 NFL owners about his mea culpa in the two-game suspension of Rice and immediate implementation of a domestic violence clause to the NFL's personal conduct policy, the McDonald story almost felt disposable, moving down the sports media food chain to a seeming point of extinction.
Let's see how the McDonald story plays out. So far, charges have not been filed against him. If the NFL deems punishment is warranted, he could be connected via media and the NFL to domestic violence the way Michael Vick was to animal cruelty. Let's see if McDonald, whose incident happened just three days removed from the release of Goodell's letter, joins Rice in becoming the faces of what the NFL will no longer allow or tolerate.
Such stories about progress fade quickly. Goodell's letter to team owners resulted in a story about domestic violence and a seemingly positive attempt to look out for the victims (mostly women). Just hours later, it took an almost immediate backseat to news that Terrelle Pryor was cut from the Seahawks roster as their third-string QB.
"The reality is that domestic violence and sexual assault are often hidden crimes, ones that are under-reported and under-acknowledged," Goodell wrote in his letter. "My disciplinary decision [on the Rice incident] led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn't get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will."
That said, Roger Goodell's letter can be only the beginning in changing the culture of domestic violence in the NFL, if not all of sports.
For the most part, how the media decides to cover domestic violence in sports is out of the NFL's control. Yet now that there (finally) is some policy put in place that directly connects player/employee behavior with physical attacks on people with whom they have a relationship (including children), there is a role the NFL has an opportunity to play in assuring that Goodell's latest cause isn't just an exaggerated PR stunt.
And it goes to redirecting the dynamics of domestic abuse. What the NFL has to do, if it is sincere about making its effort effective and be at the forefront of making this epidemic recede and hopefully disappear, is make it a male issue, not a female one.
"As sad as it is to say, when you make something a woman's issue you often don't put the attention on the very people that need to be paying attention," said Kim A. Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network To End Domestic Violence, one of five organizations the NFL consulted with in shaping the language Goodell would end up using as new policy on domestic abuse.
"That's why we are so excited to see the NFL really seize this issue and move on it. Because we think that they have the potential to move this on to a broader stage so that people don't just see it as, 'Oh, that's just one of those women's issues.'"
In addition to being an example for future players and fans, Gandy said the NFL wants to be a model workplace.
"One of the things we suggested is that they needed to be careful that they made references to intimate-partner violence," Gandy said, "so that their employees that might be in same-sex relationships or men who might be the recipient of domestic violence -- again, not as common but it does happen -- feel that they are protected by those policies."
As much as what the commissioner did was the right thing to do, until he and the league find a way to de-stigmatize the stereotype that domestic violence and abuse is a "woman's" issue, nothing will change except perhaps the career of a player who commits a second offense.
According to Benjamin Morris in his FiveThirtyEight column on the subject, "domestic violence accounts for 48 percent of arrests for violent crimes among NFL players" and the 55.4 percent arrest rate for domestic violence is more than four times worse than the NFL's arrest rate for all offenses.
The only thing "female" about those stats are the victims. The problem exists within the men. Which is why it is so important moving forward that the NFL, in any promotion or marketing or awareness campaign they plan on doing to support Goodell's mission, needs to not have a "female-only" feel to it. It needs to make men know that their behavior is the problem and their changed behavior is the solution.
What is going to be difficult to prove is what is myth and what happens to be fact in connection between football and domestic violence and the general role the game plays in the abuse of people involved in relationships. In 1993, some women's advocacy groups put forward anecdotal evidence that domestic violence shelters and emergency rooms saw a significant increase of abused women on Super Bowl Sunday. NBC went so far as to run a PSA during the Super Bowl warning men that they could go to jail if they were to attack their significant others. This information, according to experts who followed the claim with research studies of their own, turned out to be inaccurate and misleading.
The fact that there is an underlying cynical belief that Goodell only "got strong" on this issue to appease the league's 50 percent female fan base and that his knees sorta buckled because of the public response and pressure to his "way too lenient" punishment of Rice last month is problematic itself. It tells a deeper, much more serious story of how an apathetic, insincere and uncommitted approach to this problem won't work.
Not saying that the NFL has any intention of doing so, but to ignore the small chance of something like that happening would be an inexcusable exercise in naïveté.
On this one, the NFL cannot afford to drop the ball.
Is there a link between the NFL, its players and domestic violence? One that is more severe than the domestic abuse that takes place every day in homes and relationships in which there is no NFL connection?
Unfortunately, the answer is probably not.
But the news of McDonald's arrest, just days after a new policy was announced, could put him one incident closer to being banned from the NFL for life. Arrests on domestic violence charges don't help remove the stereotype that there is a serious problem inside the NFL that no other professional league or sport has to immediately address.
The beginning starts here. It is this moment when the NFL hopefully will begin to prove that it is honestly about more than just football.