“My daddy gonna hit my mommy,” the 8-year-old son of the star football player told the 911 operator. When police officers arrived at the home, the boy’s mother had blood and scratch marks on her face. “He choked me so that I couldn’t talk or breathe,” she told the responding officers about the player, a standout quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings. “I was afraid for my life.”
Warren Moon, a future Hall of Fame quarterback and former NFL Man of the Year, was arrested on July 18, 1995. He was the most famous active-roster football player ever to stand trial for domestic violence, almost 20 years before a video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his wife galvanized attention on the issue. Moon was never suspended by his team, the Minnesota Vikings, or mandated to counseling. And when several members of Congress wrote to the NFL commissioner urging the league to address the problem, the NFL responded with denials and implied that raising such concerns could be considered racist.
The Moon trial was the most high-profile case in a series of domestic violence incidents in the 1990s involving football players. Between 1989 and 1994, 140 other pro and college football players were reported to police for violence against women, according to the Washington Post. Forty-three of the men accused were active NFL players at the time. NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello told the paper: “We can’t cure every ill in society. You know, we’re putting on football games. And unless it impacts on the business, we have to be very careful [from a legal standpoint] about disciplinary action we take.”
The situation prompted members of Congress to take action, demanding that the league address the problem. Then-Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Constance Morella, R-Md., wrote to then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue urging the league to address “the repeated tragic examples [of violence against women] involving professional football players.” They said the failure of the league to punish Moon “sends an insidious and harmful message to many Americans.”
It took the league three months to respond. Then-NFL senior vice president of communications and government affairs Joe Brown denied that there was a domestic violence problem among players, adding, “To single out athletes will unfavorably serve to perpetuate stereotypes – including as to ethnic and racial groups – that impair efforts to deal with these issues.” His statement continued: “It will also unfairly stigmatize athletes by inevitably suggesting that they have a particular propensity to engage in such behavior when there is no basis for such an implication… We believe that any resolution on this subject selectively directed at athletes… is highly inappropriate and necessarily open to criticism as discriminatory.”
Moon was acquitted after a contentious trial in which jurors were never told about three previous incidents involving physical attacks on his wife that had been documented in county records. His wife, Felicia Moon, stood by her husband and refused to testify. When she finally took the stand under the threat of jail, she denied knowing how she got the bruises and injuries shown in police photographs, telling the jury: “They might have been self-inflicted.” She said that though some Vikings coaches reached out to her, the NFL didn’t do anything.
Moon later claimed it was a misdemeanor case that never should have gone to trial. “The way the media covered it was as if I had chopped somebody’s head off,” he told Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger, the authors of “Pro and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL.”
Felicia Moon, who is now divorced from the former quarterback, says that the NFL’s initial response to the Ray Rice allegations – a two-game suspension – was “a joke,” she told KHOU. In the furor ignited by the video of the Rice beating, current NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged that he "didn’t get it right" and announced a new policy in which first-time domestic violence offenders would face a six-game suspension, and repeat offenders would be suspended indefinitely.
Now a senator, Bernie Sanders told International Business Times that not much has changed since he raised his initial concerns over 18 years ago:
“Violence against women is a very, very serious problem in the NFL, but the problem is not limited to the NFL. A majority of women report experiencing physical violence at some point. This is beyond unacceptable.”