A Critical Look At The NFL And Domestic Violence

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Baltimore Ravens fans stand in line to exchange the jersey of Ray Rice, who is recorded on video knocking out his then-fiance. (Patrick Smtih/Getty Images)
Baltimore Ravens fans stand in line to exchange the jersey of Ray Rice, who is recorded on video knocking out his then-fiance. (Patrick Smtih/Getty Images)

On Friday afternoon, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke to the press and took questions. He began his presentation by maintaining that the NFL was capable of exercising a positive influence on society at large. Then he offered a slight variation on what he'd been saying since shortly after the video of Ray Rice punching his wife in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino became public. Goodell had previously suspended Rice for just two weeks:

"Unfortunately, over the past few weeks, we have seen all too much of the NFL doing wrong. That starts with me."

The commissioner said things would change. He's brought in people who've worked to address and eliminate domestic violence so that NFL personnel can be educated. He's pledged support for the Domestic Violence Hotline. But he did not address the specific inconsistencies between what he has said and what has been reported concerning when the NFL had received the Rice tape. He did not explain how he could characterize what Rice had told him about the assault as "ambiguous" when Rice and others have maintained that the commissioner had been told what had happened in the elevator.

Jeff Benedict is a special features writer for Sports Illustrated and he recently wrote an op-ed titled "The NFL's Willful Ignorance On Domestic Violence" for the LA Times. Benedict joined Bill Littlefield.

BL: You say the NFL has an "antiquated playbook" when it comes to domestic violence. How so?

[sidebar title="The NFL's Crisis Management" width="630" align="right"]Crisis management expert Gene Grabowski of the firm Levick joins Only A Game to assess the NFL's handling of its abuse scandals.[/sidebar]

JB: They've been doing the same thing for about 20 years when it comes to reported incidents of domestic violence amongst its players, which is, first of all, kind of deny and ignore. If a case reaches the point of an arrest or an indictment, they like to claim that, "Well, we're going to let the criminal justice system run its course and these players have due-process rights." But all the while they don't really do anything.

And I think for a long time it's because their position was, "This doesn't really affect the integrity of the game or what we do on Sunday, unlike steroids or gambling, which really threatens whether the game is really credible." And so that's been their position for a long, long time, whether it was sexual assault or domestic violence. Because of things like video and the release of photographs — the fan base and the public actually sees the damage — it's much harder now to take that tact.

BL: Do you think that the NFL, for those reasons that you've mentioned, is in the process of updating their playbook appropriately?

JB: Most of what the NFL has done in the last three weeks has been reactionary or reflexive. The NFL is the best at putting on spectacles. They put on, you know, 14, 15, 16 of these a week. But when it comes to dealing with things outside the lines, the league is really not equipped well to do that. They're pretty tone deaf because they're so focused on football. And so I think the jury's still out on whether they're going to make the kind of changes that they need to make. They need to define what they're doing.

BL: The NFL has put four women in charge of the league's domestic violence policies, but you write, "The NFL is in dire need of male leadership when it comes to violence against women." Why the emphasis on male leadership?

JB: Well I think it's so clear that the NFL is loaded with players, past and present, who are and have been model husbands and fathers and, frankly, have very strong views about domestic violence, and we never hear from them. We've seen a couple of them surface just in the last week or two. And I think what the league really needs is they need those guys to be the ones who are speaking — not only to the public but also in the locker room.

Having women there is great but look, this is a league of men. Every player in this league is a man. Every coach is a man. The staffs are loaded with men. The league is run by men. They need men from inside who will step up and say, "You know what, this is a big issue to me. And it should be a big issue to all of us." For 20 years women's groups have been calling on the NFL to do something and it hasn't been very successful.

BL: I don't know if you're aware of it, Jeff, but you were quoted on the Rush Limbaugh show this week. Mr. Limbaugh referenced your 1997 study on crime in the NFL to prove that the arrest rate for NFL players is less than half that of the general population. What is Mr. Limbaugh missing?

JB: Well, as usual, Rush doesn't have all the facts. I wasn't aware that I was quoted by him. In my book, I think when you compare NFL players to the general population, the flaw with that comparison is that NFL players are not like the general population. They don't live in the same zip codes as most white and black men who commit crimes of violence. They make way more money and they are held up as examples to youth. And I think those are the distinguishing factors that you have to point out when you're looking at this kind of data.

BL: I have read headlines this week such as, "Could Brain Injuries Be Behind The NFL Rap Sheet?" and we know that CTE, from which many players have suffered, causes mood disorders, volatility, even violent behavior. Might some of those committing domestic abuse be victims as well as victimizers?

JB: There's certainly that possibility. There's no question that some of the players who have been charged with domestic violence, it's documented, have had cases of concussions. But I think the thing is you've got players who — this is a very violent game, and you are paid to exhibit violence. That's what their job is and occasionally some of these guys come home and that violence carries over into the home. And that's another reason why I think the NFL has an extra obligation here.

This segment aired on September 20, 2014.


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